The paper describes the toluene degradation process in a flat plate vapor phase bioreactor (VPBR) by a Pseudomonas putida 54G biofilm. Oxygen microelectrodes were used to measure oxygen concentration profiles through the gas, liquid, and biofilm phases. The linear shape of the dissolved oxygen concentration profile in the outer 87% of the biofilm thickness suggested an absence of reaction in this layer. Oxygen consumption in the remaining basal 13 % (0.3 mm) followed zero order kinetics with a rate constant of 102.2 g m−3 h−1, for toluene gas concentration of 1.5 g m−3.

The increase in respiratory activity near the substratum was confirmed by microscopic study of cryogenic biofilm sections, and the lack of activity in the surface film was interpreted as a consequence of injury exerted by the toxic substrate. The accumulation of dead cells on the top of the biofilm contributed a resistance to the transport of substrates to deeper layers of the biofilm suggesting a protective role of the outer layer against the harmful effect of the toxic. These results highlight a new conceptual biofilm model in which both microbial growth and inactivation are controlled by substrate transport, leading to a structure that itself controls substrate availability.