Retinal Conformation and Dynamics in Activation of Rhodopsin Illuminated by Solid-state 2H NMR Spectroscopy


  • This paper is part of the Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Retinal Proteins, Barcelona, Spain, 15–19 June 2008.

*Corresponding author email: (Michael F. Brown)


Solid-state NMR spectroscopy gives a powerful avenue for investigating G protein-coupled receptors and other integral membrane proteins in a native-like environment. This article reviews the use of solid-state 2H NMR to study the retinal cofactor of rhodopsin in the dark state as well as the meta I and meta II photointermediates. Site-specific 2H NMR labels have been introduced into three regions (methyl groups) of retinal that are crucially important for the photochemical function of rhodopsin. Despite its phenomenal stability 2H NMR spectroscopy indicates retinal undergoes rapid fluctuations within the protein binding cavity. The spectral lineshapes reveal the methyl groups spin rapidly about their three-fold (C3) axes with an order parameter for the off-axial motion of inline image For the dark state, the 2H NMR structure of 11-cis-retinal manifests torsional twisting of both the polyene chain and the β-ionone ring due to steric interactions of the ligand and the protein. Retinal is accommodated within the rhodopsin binding pocket with a negative pretwist about the C11=C12 double bond. Conformational distortion explains its rapid photochemistry and reveals the trajectory of the 11-cis to trans isomerization. In addition, 2H NMR has been applied to study the retinylidene dynamics in the dark and light-activated states. Upon isomerization there are drastic changes in the mobility of all three methyl groups. The relaxation data support an activation mechanism whereby the β-ionone ring of retinal stays in nearly the same environment, without a large displacement of the ligand. Interactions of the β-ionone ring and the retinylidene Schiff base with the protein transmit the force of the retinal isomerization. Solid-state 2H NMR thus provides information about the flow of energy that triggers changes in hydrogen-bonding networks and helix movements in the activation mechanism of the photoreceptor.