Quantum electron tunneling in respiratory complex I

J Phys Chem B. 2011 May 12;115(18):5354-64. doi: 10.1021/jp109410j. Epub 2011 Apr 15.


We have simulated the atomistic details of electronic wiring of all Fe/S clusters in complex I, a key enzyme in the respiratory electron transport chain. The tunneling current theory of many-electron systems is applied to the broken-symmetry (BS) states of the protein at the ZINDO level. While the one-electron tunneling approximation is found to hold in electron tunneling between the antiferromagnetic binuclear and tetranuclear Fe/S clusters without major orbital or spin rearrangement of the core electrons, induced polarization of the core electrons contributes significantly to decrease the electron transfer rates to 19-56 %. Calculated tunneling energy is about 3 eV higher than Fermi level in the band gap of the protein, which supports that the mechanism of electron transfer is quantum mechanical tunneling, as in the rest of the electron transport chain. Resulting electron tunneling pathways consist of up to three key contributing protein residues between neighboring Fe/S clusters. A signature of the wave properties of electrons is observed as distinct quantum interferences when multiple tunneling pathways exist. In N6a-N6b, electron tunnels along different pathways depending on the involved BS states, suggesting possible fluctuations of the tunneling pathways driven by the local protein environment. The calculated distance dependence of the electron transfer rates with internal water molecules included is in good agreement with a reported phenomenological relation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Electron Transport
  • Electron Transport Complex I / chemistry*
  • Electron Transport Complex I / metabolism
  • Electrons*
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Quantum Theory


  • Electron Transport Complex I