"Proton holes" in long-range proton transfer reactions in solution and enzymes: A theoretical analysis

Demian Riccardi, Peter König, Xavier Prat-Resina, Haibo Yu, Marcus Elstner, Thomas Frauenheim, Qiang Cui

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Proton transfers are fundamental to chemical processes in solution and biological systems. Often, the well-known Grotthuss mechanism is assumed where a series of sequential "proton hops" initiates from the donor and combines to produce the net transfer of a positive charge over a long distance. Although direct experimental evidence for the sequential proton hopping has been obtained recently, alternative mechanisms may be possible in complex molecular systems. To understand these events, all accessible protonation states of the mediating groups should be considered. This is exemplified by transfers through water where the individual water molecules can exist in three protonation states (water, hydronium, and hydroxide); as a result, an alternative to the Grotthuss mechanism for a proton transfer through water is to generate a hydroxide by first protonating the acceptor and then transfer the hydroxide toward the donor through water. The latter mechanism can be most generally described as the transfer of a "proton hole" from the acceptor to the donor where the "hole" characterizes the deprotonated state of any mediating molecule. This pathway is distinct and is rarely considered in the discussion of proton-transfer processes. Using a calibrated quantum mechanical/molecular mechanical (QM/MM) model and an effective sampling technique, we study proton transfers in two solution systems and in Carbonic Anhydrase II. Although the relative weight of the "proton hole" and Grotthuss mechanisms in a specific system is difficult to determine precisely using any computational approach, the current study establishes an energetics motivated framework that hinges on the donor/acceptor pKa values and electrostatics due to the environment to argue that the "proton hole" transfer is likely as important as the classical Grotthuss mechanism for proton transport in many complex molecular systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16302-16311
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number50
StatePublished - Dec 20 2006
Externally publishedYes


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