The n→π* Interaction

Acc Chem Res. 2017 Aug 15;50(8):1838-1846. doi: 10.1021/acs.accounts.7b00121. Epub 2017 Jul 23.


The carbonyl group holds a prominent position in chemistry and biology not only because it allows diverse transformations but also because it supports key intermolecular interactions, including hydrogen bonding. More recently, carbonyl groups have been found to interact with a variety of nucleophiles, including other carbonyl groups, in what we have termed an n→π* interaction. In an n→π* interaction, a nucleophile donates lone-pair (n) electron density into the empty π* orbital of a nearby carbonyl group. Mixing of these orbitals releases energy, resulting in an attractive interaction. Hints of such interactions were evident in small-molecule crystal structures as early as the 1970s, but not until 2001 was the role of such interactions articulated clearly. These non-covalent interactions were first discovered during investigations into the thermostability of the proline-rich protein collagen, which achieves a robust structure despite a relatively low potential for hydrogen bonding. It was found that by modulating the distance between two carbonyl groups in the peptide backbone, one could alter the conformational preferences of a peptide bond to proline. Specifically, only the trans conformation of a peptide bond to proline allows for an attractive interaction with an adjacent carbonyl group, so when one increases the proximity of the two carbonyl groups, one enhances their interaction and promotes the trans conformation of the peptide bond, which increases the thermostability of collagen. More recently, attention has been paid to the nature of these interactions. Some have argued that rather than resulting from electron donation, carbonyl interactions are a particular example of dipolar interactions that are well-approximated by classical mechanics. However, experimental evidence has demonstrated otherwise. Numerous examples now exist where an increase in the dipole moment of a carbonyl group decreases the strength of its interactions with other carbonyl groups, demonstrating unequivocally that a dipolar mechanism is insufficient to describe these interactions. Rather, these interactions have important quantum-mechanical character that can be evaluated through careful experimental analysis and judicious use of computation. Although individual n→π* interactions are relatively weak (∼0.3-0.7 kcal/mol), the ubiquity of carbonyl groups across chemistry and biology gives the n→π* interaction broad impact. In particular, the n→π* interaction is likely to play an important role in dictating protein structure. Indeed, bioinformatics analysis suggests that approximately one-third of residues in folded proteins satisfy the geometric requirements to engage in an n→π* interaction, which is likely to be of particular importance for the α-helix. Other carbonyl-dense polymeric materials like polyesters and peptoids are also influenced by n→π* interactions, as are a variety of small molecules, some with particular medicinal importance. Research will continue to identify molecules whose conformation and activity are affected by the n→π* interaction and will clarify their specific contributions to the structures of biomacromolecules.

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

  • Hydrogen Bonding
  • Ketones / chemistry
  • Molecular Probes
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Folding
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Quantum Theory


  • Ketones
  • Molecular Probes
  • Proteins