Retinal isomerization reactions, which are functionally important in the proton pump cycle of bacteriorhodopsin, were studied by molecular dynamics simulations performed on the complete protein. Retinal isomerizations were simulated in situ to account for the effects of the retinal-protein interactions. The protein structure employed was that described in Nonella et al. [Nonella, M., Windemuth, A., & Schulten, K. (1991) Photochem. Photobiol. 54, 937-948]. We investigated two mechanisms suggested previously for the proton pump cycle, the 13-cis isomerization model (C-T model) and the 13,14-dicis isomerization model. According to these models, retinal undergoes an all-trans → 13-cis or an all-trans → 13,14-dicis photoisomerization as the primary step of the pump cycle. From the simulations emerged a consistent picture of isomerization reactions and their control through the retinal-protein interactions which favors the 13,14-dicis isomerization model. Electrostatic interactions between the protonated Schiff base and its counterion are found to direct the stereochemistry of retinal in the photocycle: this and other interactions steer retinal toward the 13,14-dicis geometry in the primary photoreaction, toward the 13-cis geometry after its deprotonation, and to the all-trans isomeric form after its reprotonation. We also propose a catalytic mechanism involving hydrogen bonding of the Schiff base to main chain oxygen atoms of Val-49 and Thr-89 for the 13-cis → all-trans thermal reisomerization of retinal. The all-trans → 13-cis primary photoreaction required by the "C-T" model was found to be inhibited by the Schiff base-counterion interaction, but the possibility of such a reaction can not be excluded. In order to investigate the "C-T" model, we enforced an all-trans → 13-cis photoisomerization in a simulation and monitored the subsequent protein conformational changes. The effects of internal water molecules on retinal isomerization reactions were studied by placing 16 water molecules in the proton conduction channel. The results indicate that water affects the nature of the Schiff base counterion and the nature of the primary photoreaction. Water chains, formed between positively and negatively charged protein groups in the proton conduction channel, are suggested to be involved in the reprotonation and deprotonation of retinal.
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