Changes in the FTIR difference spectra upon photoconversion of the M intermediate to its photoproduct(s) M' were studied in wild-type bacteriorhodopsin and several mutants at low temperatures. The studies aimed at examining whether internally bound water molecules interact with the chromophore and the key residues Asp85 and Asp96 in M, and whether these water molecules participate in the reprotonation of the Schiff base. We have found that three water molecules are perturbed by the isomerization of the chromophore in the M → M' transition at 80 K. The perturbation of one water molecule, detected as a bilobe at 3567(+)/3550(-) cm-1, relaxed in parallel with the relaxation of an Asp85 perturbation upon increasing temperature from 80 to 100 and 133 K (before the reprotonation of the Schiff base). Two water bands of M at 3588 and 3570 cm-1 shift to 3640 cm-1 upon photoconversion at 173 K. These bands were attributed to water molecules which are located in the vicinity of the Schiff base and Asp85 (Wat85). In the M to M' transition at 80 and 100 K, where the Schiff base remained unprotonated, the Wat85 pair stayed in similar states to those in M. The reprotonation of the Schiff base at 133 K occurred without the restoration of the Wat85 band around 3640 cm-1. This band was restored at higher temperatures. Two water molecules in the region surrounded by Thr46, Asp96, and Phe219 (Wat219) were perturbed in the M to M' transition at 80 K and relaxed in parallel with the relaxation of the perturbation of Asp96 upon increasing the temperature. Mutant studies show that upon photoisomerization of the chromophore at 80 K one of the Wat219 water molecules moves closer to Val49 (located near the lysine side chain attached to retinal, and close to the Schiff base). These data along with our previous results indicate that the water molecules in the cytoplasmic domain participate in the connection of Asp96 with the Schiff base and undergo displacement during photoconversions, presumably shuttling between the Schiff base and a site close to Asp96 in the L to M to N transitions.
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