Early intermediates of bacteriorhodopsin's photocycle were modeled by means of ab initio quantum mechanical/molecular mechanical and molecular dynamics simulations. The photoisomerization of the retinal chromophore and the formation of photoproducts corresponding to the early intermediates were simulated by molecular dynamics simulations. By means of the quantum mechanical/molecular mechanical method, the resulting structures were refined and the respective excitation energies were calculated. Two sequential intermediates were found with absorption maxima that exhibit red shifts from the resting state. The intermediates were therefore assigned to the K and KL states. In K, the conformation of the retinal chromophore is strongly deformed, and the N-H bond of the Schiff base points almost perpendicular to the membrane normal toward Asp-212. The strongly deformed conformation of the chromophore and weakened interaction of the Schiff base with the surrounding polar groups are the means by which the absorbed energy is stored. During the K-to-KL transition, the chromophore undergoes further conformational changes that result in the formation of a hydrogen bond between the N-H group of the Schiff base and Thr-89 as well as other rearrangements of the hydrogen-bond network in the vicinity of the Schiff base, which are suggested to play a key role in the proton transfer process in the later phase of the photocycle.
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