Background: Lack of accounting for proton uptake and secretion has confounded interpretation of the stoichiometry of photosynthetic growth of algae. This is also problematic for achieving growth of microalgae to high cell concentrations which is necessary to improve productivity and the economic feasibility of commercial-scale chemical production systems. Since microalgae are capable of consuming both nitrate and ammonium, this represents an opportunity to balance culture pH based on a nitrogen feeding strategy that does not utilize gas-phase CO2 buffering. Stoichiometry suggests that approximately 36 weight%N-NH4+ (balance nitrogen as NO3-) would minimize the proton imbalance and permit high-density photoautotrophic growth as it does in higher plant tissue culture. However, algal media almost exclusively utilize nitrate, and ammonium is often viewed as 'toxic' to algae.Results: The microalgae Chlorella vulgaris and Chlamydomonas reinhardtii exclusively utilize ammonium when both ammonium and nitrate are provided during growth on excess CO2. The resulting proton imbalance from preferential ammonium utilization causes the pH to drop too low to sustain further growth when ammonium was only 9% of the total nitrogen (0.027 gN-NH4+/L). However, providing smaller amounts of ammonium sequentially in the presence of nitrate maintained the pH of a Chlorella vulgaris culture for improved growth on 0.3 gN/L to 5 gDW/L under 5% CO2 gas-phase supplementation. Bioreactor pH dynamics are shown to be predictable based on simple nitrogen assimilation as long as there is sufficient CO2 availability.Conclusions: This work provides both a media formulation and a feeding strategy with a focus on nitrogen metabolism and regulation to support high-density algal culture without buffering. The instability in culture pH that is observed in microalgal cultures in the absence of buffers can be overcome through alternating utilization of ammonium and nitrate. Despite the highly regulated array of nitrogen transporters, providing a nitrogen source with a balanced degree of reduction minimizes pH fluctuations. Understanding and accommodating the behavior of nitrogen utilization in microalgae is key to avoiding 'culture crash' and reliance on gas phase CO2 buffering, which becomes both ineffective and cost-prohibitive for commercial-scale algal culture.
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