Molecular dynamics simulations on the Escherichia coli ammonia channel protein AmtB: mechanism of ammonia/ammonium transport

J Am Chem Soc. 2006 Aug 23;128(33):10876-84. doi: 10.1021/ja0631549.


Molecular dynamics (MD) simulations have been performed at the atomic level to study the ammonium/ammonia transport across the Escherichia coli AmtB membrane protein. Although ammonia primarily exists in the form of NH(4)(+) in aqueous solution, the recent X-ray structure determination of AmtB reveals that the ammonium/ammonia transporter proteins are ammonia-conducting channels rather than ammonium ion transporters [Khademi, S.; et al. Science 2004, 305, 1587; Zheng, L.; et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2004, 101, 17090]. Our simulations showed that the entrance of NH(4)(+) into the periplasmic recruitment vestibule requires only 3.1 kcal/mol of energy. This is consistent with the X-ray crystal structure, where one NH(4)(+) is captured in the binding vestibule. In this vestibule, NH(4)(+) loses one water of hydration, but the loss is compensated by a hydrogen bond, first with the backbone carbonyl oxygen of Phe161 then with the hydroxyl group of Ser219, as well as the stabilizing pi-cation interactions with the aromatic rings of Trp148 and Phe107 in the AmtB protein. In the end of this recruitment vestibule, the phenyl ring of Phe107 dynamically switches to an open state. This is correlated with a slight rotation and shifting of the indole ring of Trp148, which eventually creates a slot for the initially buried carboxylate group of Asp160 to become exposed to the bulk solvent. A hydrogen bond wire between NH(4)(+) and the carboxylate group of Asp160 via two water molecules was observed. Thus, Asp160 is most likely the proton acceptor from NH(4)(+). This explains the high conservation of Asp160 in Amt proteins and why the D160A mutant would completely quench the activity of AmtB [Javelle, A.; et al. J. Biol. Chem. 2004, 279, 8530; Marini, A. M.; et al. Curr. Genet. 2006, 49, 364]. Once NH(4)(+) deprotonates, the phenyl ring of Phe215 rotates to open, and the subsequent passage of NH(3) through the channel is straightforward.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ammonia / chemistry
  • Ammonia / metabolism*
  • Binding Sites
  • Biological Transport
  • Cation Transport Proteins / chemistry*
  • Cation Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • Computer Simulation*
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Conformation
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds / chemistry
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds / metabolism*


  • AmtB protein, E coli
  • Cation Transport Proteins
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds
  • Ammonia