A recently determined atomic structure of an H(+)-coupled ATP-synthase membrane rotor has revived the long-standing question of whether protons may be bound to these structures in the form of a hydronium ion. Using both classical and quantum-mechanical simulations, we show that this notion is implausible. Ab initio molecular dynamics simulations of the binding site demonstrate that the putative H(3)O(+) deprotonates within femtoseconds. The bound proton is thus transferred irreversibly to the carboxylate side chain found in the ion-binding sites of all ATP-synthase rotors. This result is consistent with classical simulations of the rotor in a phospholipid membrane, on the 100-nanosecond timescale. These simulations show that the hydrogen-bond network seen in the crystal structure is incompatible with a bound hydronium. The observed coordination geometry is shown to correspond instead to a protonated carboxylate and a bound water molecule. In conclusion, this study underscores the notion that binding and transient storage of protons in the membrane rotors of ATP synthases occur through a common chemical mechanism, namely carboxylate protonation.
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