The barrier for proton transport in aquaporins as a challenge for electrostatic models: The role of protein relaxation in mutational calculations



The origin of the barrier for proton transport through the aquaporin channel is a problem of general interest. It is becoming increasingly clear that this barrier is not attributable to the orientation of the water molecules across the channel but rather to the electrostatic penalty for moving the proton charge to the center of the channel. However, the reason for the high electrostatic barrier is still rather controversial. It has been argued by some workers that the barrier is due to the so-called NPA motif and/or to the helix macrodipole or to other specific elements. However, our works indicated that the main reason for the high barrier is the loss of the generalized solvation upon moving the proton charge from the bulk to the center of the channel and that this does not reflect a specific repulsive electrostatic interaction but the absence of sufficient electrostatic stabilization. At this stage it seems that the elucidation and clarification of the origin of the electrostatic barrier can serve as an instructive test case for electrostatic models. Thus, we reexamine the free-energy surface for proton transport in aquaporins using the microscopic free-energy perturbation/umbrella sampling (FEP/US) and the empirical valence bond/umbrella sampling (EVB/US) methods as well as the semimacroscopic protein dipole Langevin dipole model in its linear response approximation version (the PDLD/S-LRA). These extensive studies help to clarify the nature of the barrier and to establish the “reduced solvation effect” as the primary source of this barrier. That is, it is found that the barrier is associated with the loss of the generalized solvation energy (which includes of course all electrostatic effects) upon moving the proton charge from the bulk solvent to the center of the channel. It is also demonstrated that the residues in the NPA region and the helix dipole cannot be considered as the main reasons for the electrostatic barrier. Furthermore, our microscopic and semimacroscopic studies clarify the problems with incomplete alternative calculations, illustrating that the effects of various electrostatic elements are drastically overestimated by macroscopic calculations that use a low dielectric constant and do not consider the protein reorganization. Similarly, it is pointed out that microscopic potential of mean force calculations that do not evaluate the electrostatic barrier relative to the bulk water cannot be used to establish the origin of the electrostatic barrier. The relationship between the present study and calculations of pKas in protein interiors is clarified, pointing out that approaches that are applied to study the aquaporin barrier should be validated by pKas calculations. Such calculations also help to clarify the crucial role of solvation energies in establishing the barrier in aquaporins. Proteins 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.