Hydration shells of molecules in molecular association: A mechanism for biomolecular recognition

J Theor Biol. 2012 May 21;301:42-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2012.02.008. Epub 2012 Feb 17.


It has become clear that water should not be treated as an inert environment, but rather as an integral and active component of molecules. Here, we consider molecules and their hydration shells together as single entities. We show that: (1) the rate of association of molecules should be determined by the energetic barriers arising from interactions between their hydration shells; (2) replacing non-polar atoms of molecular surfaces with polar atoms increases these barriers; (3) reduction of the hydration shells during molecular association is the driving force for association not only of non-polar, but of polar molecules as well; (4) in most cases the dehydration of polar atoms during molecular association thermodynamically counteracts association; (5) on balance the thermodynamic stability of associated complexes is basically determined by the action of these two opposing factors: reduction of the hydration shells and dehydration of polar atoms; (6) molecular crowding reduces the energetic barriers counteracting association and changes the thermodynamic stability of associated complexes. These results lead to a mechanism for biomolecular recognition in the context of which the formation of unique structures is provided by rapidly forming kinetic traps with a biologically necessary lifetime but with a marginal thermodynamic stability. The mechanism gives definitive answers to questions concerning the heart of specific interactions between biomolecules, their folding and intracellular organization. Predictions are given that can be subjected to direct experimental tests.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Hydrogen Bonding
  • Models, Molecular*
  • Protein Folding
  • Surface Properties
  • Thermodynamics
  • Water / chemistry*


  • Water