Specific Cation Effects in Biological Systems: Thermodynamic and Spectroscopic Insights



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Very specific protein-salt interactions are involved in a multitude of biological phenomena such as protein folding/stability, enzymatic activity, and signal transduction events. In this work, we used two very simple, protein-mimic model biopolymers to obtain a better understanding of specific cation effects operating in aqueous protein environments. The two biopolymers used were Elastin-like Polypeptides (ELPs) and poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAM). ELPs are an especially an ideal model system as these polypeptides can be easily genetically engineered to observe the effect of specific amino acid residues and peptide chain length on these salt interactions. Both of these biopolymers are also highly thermoresponsive as their aqueous solutions undergo a hydrophobic collapse/aggregation induced phase transition process above a lower critical solution temperature (LCST). Thermodynamic measurements of these biopolymers were carried out under various salt solution conditions. Additionally, both of these biopolymers are suitable for making surface specific spectroscopic measurements. Vibrational sum frequeny spectroscopy (VSFS), a non-linear interface sensitive spectroscopic technique, was employed here to investigate biologically relevant cation interactions which occur at peptide/protein surfaces.

First, the LCST response of a non-polar ELP and a neutral biopolymer, PNIPAM, was investigated in the presence of 12 different alkali, alkaline-earth metal and transition metal chloride salts. Even though the salt interactions for uncharged proteins are dominated by anions, subtle specific cation effects were also observed. The results followed a direct Hofmeister series for cations. Most alkali cations are excluded from the polar amide regions of proteins. More polarizable cations, however, can solvate the hydrophobic moieties and somewhat counter the salting-out effect of the chloride anion. More charged and hydrated ions like lithium and divalent cations showed a weak interaction to the amide moiety through their hydration shell.

The role of acidic amino acid residues in inducing cation specificities was investigated using an aspartate-rich ELP system. Both thermodynamic and spectroscopic data conclusively proved that the negative charge on protein surfaces is the main driving force for cation partitioning and specificity under physiological relevant concentration regimes. Apparent binding constants of carboxylate moieties with cations were determined. This is the first quantitative and thoroughly systematic study of such biologically relevant cation-carboxylate interactions prevalent in enzyme active sites and protein surfaces.