Backbone Hydrogen Bond Energies in Membrane Proteins Are Insensitive to Large Changes in Local Water Concentration

J Am Chem Soc. 2020 Apr 1;142(13):6227-6235. doi: 10.1021/jacs.0c00290. Epub 2020 Mar 17.


A hallmark feature of biological lipid bilayer structure is a depth-dependent polarity gradient largely resulting from the change in water concentration over the angstrom length scale. This gradient is particularly steep as it crosses the membrane interfacial regions where the water concentration drops at least a million-fold along the direction of the bilayer normal. Although local water content is often assumed to be a major determinant of membrane protein stability, the effect of the water-induced polarity gradient upon backbone hydrogen bond strength has not been systematically investigated. We addressed this question by measuring the free energy change for a number of backbone hydrogen bonds in the transmembrane protein OmpW. These values were obtained at 33 backbone amides from hydrogen/deuterium fractionation factors by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. We surprisingly found that OmpW backbone hydrogen bond energies do not vary over a wide range of water concentrations that are characteristic of the solvation environment in the bilayer interfacial region. We validated the interpretation of our results by determining the hydrodynamic and solvation properties of our OmpW-micelle complex using analytical ultracentrifugation and molecular dynamics simulations. The magnitudes of the backbone hydrogen bond free energy changes in our study are comparable to those observed in water-soluble proteins, the H-segment of the leader peptidase helix used in the von Heijne and White biological scale experiments, and several interfacial peptides. Our results agree with those reported for the transmembrane α-helical portion of the amyloid precursor protein after the latter values were adjusted for kinetic isotope effects. Overall, our work suggests that backbone hydrogen bonds provide modest thermodynamic stability to membrane protein structures and that many amides are unaffected by dehydration within the bilayer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli / chemistry*
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / chemistry*
  • Hydrogen Bonding
  • Models, Molecular
  • Protein Stability
  • Thermodynamics
  • Water / chemistry*


  • Bacterial Outer Membrane Proteins
  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • ompW protein, E coli
  • Water