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Calculation of Intermolecular Interactions for Sensors with Biological Applications

Two new papers on the development of chemosensors for different applications were recently published and we had the opportunity to participate in both with the calculation of electronic interactions.

A chemosensor requires to have a measurable response and calculating either that response from first principles based on the electronic structure, or calculating another physicochemical property related to the response are useful strategies in their molecular design. Additionally, electronic structure calculations helps us unveil the molecular mechanisms underlying their response and efficiency, as well as providing a starting point for their continuous improvement.

In the first paper, CdTe Quantum Dots (QD’s) are used to visualize in real time cell-membrane damages through a Gd Schiff base sensitizer (GdQDs). This probe interacts preferentially with a specific sequence motif of NHE-RF2 scaffold protein which is exposed during cell damage. This interactions yields intensely fluorescent droplets which can be visualized in real time with standard instrumentation. Calculations at the level of theory M06-2X/LANL2DZ plus an external double zeta quality basis set on Gd, were employed to characterize the electronic structure of the Gd³⁺ complex, the Quantum Dot and their mutual interactions. The first challenge was to come up with the right multiplicity for Gd³⁺ (an f⁷ ion) for which we had no experimental evidence of their magnetic properties. From searching the literature and talking to my good friend, inorganic chemist Dr. Vojtech Jancik it was more or less clear the multiplicity had to be an octuplet (all seven electrons unpaired).

As can be seen in figure 1a the Gd-N interactions are mostly electrostatic in nature, a fact that is also reflected in the Wiberg bond indexes calculated as 0.16, 0.17 and 0.21 (a single bond would yield a WBI value closer to 1.0).

PM6 optimizations were employed in optimizing the GdQD as a whole (figure 1f) and the MM-UFF to characterize their union to a peptide sequence (figure 2) from which we observed somewhat unsurprisingly that Gd³⁺interacts preferently with the electron rich residues.

This research was published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces. Thanks to Prof. Vojtech Adam from the Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic for inviting me to collaborate with their interdisciplinary team.

The second sensor I want to write about today is a more closer to home collaboration with Dr. Alejandro Dorazco who developed a fluorescent porphyrin system that becomes chiefly quenched in the presence of Iodide but not with any other halide. This allows for a fast detection of iodide anions, related to some gland diseases, in aqueous samples such as urine. This probe was also granted a patent which technically lists yours-truly as an inventor, cool!

The calculated interaction energy was huge between I⁻ and the porphyrine, which supports the idea of a ionic interaction through which charge transfer interactions quenches the fluorescence of the probe. Figure 3 above shows how the HOMO largely resides on the iodide whereas the LUMO is located on the pi electron system of the porphyrine.

This research was published in Sensors and Actuators B – Chemical.


Mg²⁺ Needs a 5th Coordination in Chlorophylls – New paper in IJQC

Photosynthesis, the basis of life on Earth, is based on the capacity a living organism has of capturing solar energy and transform it into chemical energy through the synthesis of macromolecules like carbohydrates. Despite the fact that most of the molecular processes present in most photosynthetic organisms (plants, algae and even some bacteria) are well described, the mechanism of energy transference from the light harvesting molecules to the reaction centers are not entirely known. Therefore, in our lab we have set ourselves to study the possibility of some excitonic transference mechanisms between pigments (chlorophyll and its corresponding derivatives). It is widely known that the photophysical properties of chlorophylls and their derivatives stem from the electronic structure of the porphyrin and it is modulated by the presence of Mg but its not this ion the one that undergoes the main electronic transitions; also, we know that Mg almost never lies in the same plane as the porphyrin macrocycle because it bears a fifth coordination whether to another pigment or to a protein that keeps it in place (Figure 1).


Figure 1 The UV-Vis spectra of BCHl-a changes with the coordination state

During our calculations of the electronic structure of the pigments (Bacteriochlorophyll-a, BChl-a) present in the Fenna-Matthews-Olson complex of sulfur dependent bacteria we found that the Mg²⁺ ion at the center of one of these pigments could in fact create an intermolecular interaction with the C=C double bond in the phytol fragment which lied beneath the porphyrin ring.


Figure 2 Mg points ‘downwards’ upon optimization, hinting to the interaction under study


This would be the first time that a dihapto coordination is suggested to occur in any chlorophyll and that on itself is interesting enough but we took it further and calculated the photophysical implications of having this fifth intramolecular dihapto coordination as opposed to a protein or none for that matter. Figure 3 shows that the calculated UV-Vis spectra (calculated with Time Dependent DFT at the CAM-B3LYP functional and the cc-pVDZ, 6-31G(d,p) and 6-31+G(d,p) basis sets). A red shift is observed for the planar configuration, respect to the five coordinated species (regardless of whether it is to histidine or to the C=C double bond in the phytyl moiety).



Figure 3 CAMB3LYP UV-VIS spectra. Basis set left to right cc-PVDZ, 6-31G(d,p) and 6-31+G(d,p)

Before calculating the UV-Vis spectra, we had to unambiguously define the presence of this observed interaction. To that end we calculated to a first approximation the C-Mg Wiberg bond indexes at the CAM-B3LYP/cc-pVDZ level of theory. Both values were C(1)-Mg 0.022 and C(2)-Mg 0.032, which are indicative of weak interactions; but to take it even further we performed a non-covalent interactions analysis (NCI) under the Atoms in Molecules formalism, calculated at the M062X density which yielded the presence of the expected critical points for the η²Mg-(C=C) interaction. As a control calculation we performed the same calculation for Magnoscene just to unambiguously assign these kind of interactions (Fig 4, bottom).


Figure 4 (a), (b) NCI analysis for Mg-(C=C) interaction compared to Magnesocene (c)

This research is now available at the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry. A big shoutout and kudos to Gustavo “Gus” Mondragón for his work in this project during his masters; many more things come to him and our group in this and other research ventures.

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