Effect of Molecular Dynamics and Internal Water Contact on the Photophysical Properties of Red pH-Sensitive Proteins

The pH dependence of the absorption and (time-resolved) fluorescence of two red-shifted fluorescent proteins, mCardinal and mNeptune, was investigated. Decay-associated spectra were measured following fluorescence excitation at 470 nm in PBS buffer with a pH that ranged from 5.5 to 8.0. The fluorescence of both proteins shows two different decay components. mCardinal exhibits an increase in the long-lived fluorescence component with acidification from 1.34 ns at pH 8.0 to 1.62 ns at pH 5.5. An additional fast decay component with 0.64 ns at pH 8.0 up to 1.1 ns at pH 5.5 was found to be blue-shifted compared to the long-lived component. The fluorescence lifetime of mNeptune is insensitive to pH. DAS of mCardinal were simulated assuming a coupled two-level system to describe the 1S state of the chromophore within two different conformations of the protein. MD simulations were conducted to correlate the experimentally observed pH-induced change in the lifetime in mCardinal with its molecular properties. While the chromophores of both protein variants are stabilized by the same number of hydrogen bonds, it was found that the chromophore in mCardinal exhibits more water contacts compared to mNeptune. In mCardinal, interaction between the chromophore and Glu-145 is reduced as compared to mNeptune, but interaction with Thr-147 which is Ser-147 in mNeptune is stronger in mCardinal. Therefore, the dynamics of the excited-state proton transfer (ESPT) might be different in mCardinal and mNeptune. The pH dependency of ESPT is suggested as a key mechanism for pH sensitivity.