The respiratory chain of Escherichia coli is usually considered a device to conserve energy via the generation of a proton motive force, which subsequently may drive ATP synthesis by the ATP synthetase. It is known that in this system a fixed amount of ATP per oxygen molecule reduced (P/O ratio) is not synthesized due to alternative NADH dehydrogenases and terminal oxidases with different proton pumping stoichiometries. Here we show that P/O ratios can vary much more than previously thought. First, we show that in wild-type E. coli cytochrome bo, cytochrome bd-I, and cytochrome bd-II are the major terminal oxidases; deletion of all of the genes encoding these enzymes results in a fermentative phenotype in the presence of oxygen. Second, we provide evidence that the electron flux through cytochrome bd-II oxidase is significant but does not contribute to the generation of a proton motive force. The kinetics support the view that this system is as an energy-independent system gives the cell metabolic flexibility by uncoupling catabolism from ATP synthesis under non-steady-state conditions. The nonelectrogenic nature of cytochrome bd-II oxidase implies that the respiratory chain can function in a fully uncoupled mode such that ATP synthesis occurs solely by substrate level phosphorylation. As a consequence, the yield with a carbon and energy source can vary five- to sevenfold depending on the electron flux distribution in the respiratory chain. A full understanding and control of this distribution open new avenues for optimization of biotechnological processes.