Dronpa, a GFP (green fluorescent protein)-like fluorescent protein, allows its fluorescent and nonfluorescent states to be switched to each other reversibly by light or heat through E-Z isomerization of the GFP chromophore. In this article, a GFP chromophore (p-HBDI) in water is used as a model to explore this E-Z isomerization mechanism. Based on the experimental solvent isotope effect (kH2O/kD2O = 2.30), the E-Z isomerization of p-HBDI in water is suggested to go through the remote-proton-dissociation-regulated direct mechanism with a proton transfer in the rate-determining step. The fractionation factor (?) of the water-associated phenol proton of p-HBDI in the transition state is found to be 0.43, which is exactly in the range of 0.1-0.6 for the fractionation factor (?) of the transferring proton in the transition state of R2O··· H···O+H2 in water. This means that the phenol proton of E-p-HBDI in the transition state is on the way to the associated water oxygen during the E-Z isomerization. The proton dissociation from the phenol group of p-HBDI remotely regulates its E-Z isomerization. Less proton dissociation from the phenol group (pKa = 8.0) at pH = 1-4 results in a modest reduction in the E-Z isomerization rate of p-HBDI, while complete proton dissociation from the phenol group at pH = 11-12 also reduces its E-Z isomerization rate by one order of magnitude because of the larger charge separation in the transition state of the p-HBDI anion. All of these results are consistent with the remote-proton-dissociation-regulated direct mechanism but against the water-assisted addition/elimination mechanism.
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