Photophysics of the blue light using flavin domain

Andras Lukacs, Peter J. Tonge, Stephen R. Meech

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Light activated proteins are at the heart of photobiology and optogenetics, so there is wide interest in understanding the mechanisms coupling optical excitation to protein function. In addition, such light activated proteins provide unique insights into the real-time dynamics of protein function. Using pump–probe spectroscopy, the function of a photoactive protein can be initiated by a sub-100 fs pulse of light, allowing subsequent protein dynamics to be probed from femtoseconds to milliseconds and beyond. Among the most interesting photoactive proteins are the blue light using flavin (BLUF) domain proteins, which regulate the response to light of a wide range of bacterial and some euglenoid processes. The photosensing mechanism of BLUF domains has long been a subject of debate. In contrast to other photoactive proteins, the electronic and nuclear structure of the chromophore (flavin) is the same in dark- and light-adapted states. Thus, the driving force for photoactivity is unclear.

To address this question requires real-time observation of both chromophore excited state processes and their effect on the structure and dynamics of the surrounding protein matrix. In this Account we describe how time-resolved infrared (IR) experiments, coupled with chemical biology, provide important new insights into the signaling mechanism of BLUF domains. IR measurements are sensitive to changes in both chromophore electronic structure and protein hydrogen bonding interactions. These contributions are resolved by isotope labeling of the chromophore and protein separately. Further, a degree of control over BLUF photochemistry is achieved through mutagenesis, while unnatural amino acid substitution allows us to both fine-tune the photochemistry and time resolve protein dynamics with spatial resolution.

Ultrafast studies of BLUF domains reveal non-single-exponential relaxation of the flavin excited state. That relaxation leads within one nanosecond to the original flavin ground state bound in a modified hydrogen-bonding network, as seen in transient and steady-state IR spectroscopy. The change in H-bond configuration arises from formation of an unusual enol (imine) form of a critical glutamine residue. The dynamics observed, complemented by quantum mechanical calculations, suggest a unique sequential electron then double proton transfer reaction as the driving force, followed by rapid reorganization in the binding site and charge recombination. Importantly, studies of several BLUF domains reveal an unexpected diversity in their dynamics, although the underlying structure appears highly conserved. It is suggested that this diversity reflects structural dynamics in the ground state at standard temperature, leading to a distribution of structures and photochemical outcomes. Time resolved IR measurements were extended to the millisecond regime for one BLUF domain, revealing signaling state formation on the microsecond time scale. The mechanism involves reorganization of a β-sheet connected to the chromophore binding pocket via a tryptophan residue. The potential of site-specific labeling amino acids with IR labels as a tool for probing protein structural dynamics was demonstrated.

In summary, time-resolved IR studies of BLUF domains (along with related studies at visible wavelengths and quantum and molecular dynamics calculations) have resolved the photoactivation mechanism and real-time dynamics of signaling state formation. These measurements provide new insights into protein structural dynamics and will be important in optimizing the potential of BLUF domains in optobiology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)402-414
Number of pages13
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number3
Early online date12 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2022

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