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Intensive microbial growth typically observed in laboratory rarely occurs in nature. Because of severe nutrient deficiency, natural populations exhibit near-zero growth (NZG). There is a long-standing controversy about sustained NZG, specifically whether there is a minimum growth rate below which cells die or whether cells enter a non-growing maintenance state. Using chemostat with cell retention (CCR) ofPseudomonas putida, we resolve this controversy and show that under NZG conditions, bacteria differentiate into growing and VBNC (viable but not non-culturable) forms, the latter preserving measurable catabolic activity. The proliferating cells attained a steady state, their slow growth balanced by VBNC production. Proteomic analysis revealed upregulated (transporters, stress response, self-degrading enzymes and extracellular polymers) and downregulated (ribosomal, chemotactic and primary biosynthetic enzymes) proteins in the CCR versus batch culture. Based on these profiles, we identified intracellular processes associated with NZG and generated a mathematical model that simulated the observations. We conclude that NZG requires controlled partial self-digestion and deep reconfiguration of the metabolic machinery that results in the biosynthesis of new products and development of broad stress resistance. CCR allows efficient on-line control of NZG including VBNC production. A well-nuanced understanding of NZG is important to understand microbial processesin situand for optimal design of environmental technologies.