• dynamics;
  • backbone hydrogen bond;
  • enzyme;
  • hydrogen bond strength;
  • isotope effect


Equilibrium H/D fractionation factors have been extensively employed to qualitatively assess hydrogen bond strengths in protein structure, enzyme active sites, and DNA. It remains unclear how fractionation factors correlate with hydrogen bond free energies, however. Here we develop an empirical relationship between fractionation factors and free energy, allowing for the simple and quantitative measurement of hydrogen bond free energies. Applying our empirical relationship to prior fractionation factor studies in proteins, we find: [1] Within the folded state, backbone hydrogen bonds are only marginally stronger on average in α-helices compared to β-sheets by ∼0.2 kcal/mol. [2] Charge-stabilized hydrogen bonds are stronger than neutral hydrogen bonds by ∼2 kcal/mol on average, and can be as strong as –7 kcal/mol. [3] Changes in a few hydrogen bonds during an enzyme catalytic cycle can stabilize an intermediate state by –4.2 kcal/mol. [4] Backbone hydrogen bonds can make a large overall contribution to the energetics of conformational changes, possibly playing an important role in directing conformational changes. [5] Backbone hydrogen bonding becomes more uniform overall upon ligand binding, which may facilitate participation of the entire protein structure in events at the active site. Our energetic scale provides a simple method for further exploration of hydrogen bond free energies.