Retinal proteins are photoreceptors found in many living organisms. They possess a common chromophore, retinal, that upon absorption of light isomerizes and thereby triggers biological functions ranging from light energy conversion to phototaxis and vision. The photoisomerization of retinal is extremely fast, highly selective inside the protein matrix, and characterized through optimal sensitivity to incoming light. This article describes the first report of an ab initio quantum mechanical description of the in situ isomerization dynamics of retinal in bacteriorhodopsin, a microbial retinal protein that functions as a light-driven proton pump. The description combines ab initio multi-electronic state molecular dynamics of a truncated retinal chromophore model (N-methyl-γ-methylpenta-2,4-dieniminium cation fragment) with molecular mechanics of the protein motion and unveils in complete detail the photoisomerization process. The results illustrate the essential role of the protein for the characteristic kinetics and high selectivity of the photoisomerization: the protein arrests inhomogeneous photoisomerization paths and funnels them into a single path that initiates the functional process. Supported by comparison with dynamic spectral modulations observed in femtosecond spectroscopy, the results identify the principal molecular motion during photoisomerization.
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