Direct observation of the ion-pair dynamics at a protein-DNA interface by NMR spectroscopy

J Am Chem Soc. 2013 Mar 6;135(9):3613-9. doi: 10.1021/ja312314b. Epub 2013 Feb 25.


Ion pairing is one of the most fundamental chemical interactions and is essential for molecular recognition by biological macromolecules. From an experimental standpoint, very little is known to date about ion-pair dynamics in biological macromolecular systems. Absorption, infrared, and Raman spectroscopic methods were previously used to characterize dynamic properties of ion pairs, but these methods can be applied only to small compounds. Here, using NMR (15)N relaxation and hydrogen-bond scalar (15)N-(31)P J-couplings ((h3)J(NP)), we have investigated the dynamics of the ion pairs between lysine side-chain NH3(+) amino groups and DNA phosphate groups at the molecular interface of the HoxD9 homeodomain-DNA complex. We have determined the order parameters and the correlation times for C-N bond rotation and reorientation of the lysine NH3(+) groups. Our data indicate that the NH3(+) groups in the intermolecular ion pairs are highly dynamic at the protein-DNA interface, which should lower the entropic costs for protein-DNA association. Judging from the C-N bond-rotation correlation times along with experimental and quantum-chemically derived (h3)J(NP) hydrogen-bond scalar couplings, it seems that breakage of hydrogen bonds in the ion pairs occurs on a sub-nanosecond time scale. Interestingly, the oxygen-to-sulfur substitution in a DNA phosphate group was found to enhance the mobility of the NH3(+) group in the intermolecular ion pair. This can partially account for the affinity enhancement of the protein-DNA association by the oxygen-to-sulfur substitution, which is a previously observed but poorly understood phenomenon.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • DNA / chemistry*
  • Homeodomain Proteins / chemistry*
  • Hydrogen Bonding
  • Ions / chemistry
  • Models, Molecular
  • Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Biomolecular*
  • Thermodynamics


  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • Ions
  • DNA