Protein electron transfer: is biology (thermo)dynamic?

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Simple physical mechanisms are behind the flow of energy in all forms of life. Energy comes to living systems through electrons occupying high-energy states, either from food (respiratory chains) or from light (photosynthesis). This energy is transformed into the cross-membrane proton-motive force that eventually drives all biochemistry of the cell. Life's ability to transfer electrons over large distances with nearly zero loss of free energy is puzzling and has not been accomplished in synthetic systems. The focus of this review is on how this energetic efficiency is realized. General physical mechanisms and interactions that allow proteins to fold into compact water-soluble structures are also responsible for a rugged landscape of energy states and a broad distribution of relaxation times. Specific to a protein as a fluctuating thermal bath is the protein-water interface, which is heterogeneous both dynamically and structurally. The spectrum of interfacial fluctuations is a consequence of protein's elastic flexibility combined with a high density of surface charges polarizing water dipoles into surface nanodomains. Electrostatics is critical to the protein function and the relevant questions are: (i) What is the spectrum of interfacial electrostatic fluctuations? (ii) Does the interfacial biological water produce electrostatic signatures specific to proteins? (iii) How is protein-mediated chemistry affected by electrostatics? These questions connect the fluctuation spectrum to the dynamical control of chemical reactivity, i.e. the dependence of the activation free energy of the reaction on the dynamics of the bath. Ergodicity is often broken in protein-driven reactions and thermodynamic free energies become irrelevant. Continuous ergodicity breaking in a dense spectrum of relaxation times requires using dynamically restricted ensembles to calculate statistical averages. When applied to the calculation of the rates, this formalism leads to the nonergodic activated kinetics, which extends the transition-state theory to dynamically dispersive media. Releasing the grip of thermodynamics in kinetic calculations through nonergodicity provides the mechanism for an efficient optimization between reaction rates and the spectrum of relaxation times of the protein-water thermal bath. Bath dynamics, it appears, play as important role as the free energy in optimizing biology's performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number473001
Pages (from-to)473001
Number of pages1
JournalJournal of Physics Condensed Matter
Issue number47
StatePublished - Dec 2 2015


  • Electron transfer
  • Ergodicity breaking
  • Non-Arrhenius kinetics
  • Photosynthesis
  • Protein electrostatics
  • Protein-water interface

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Materials Science
  • Condensed Matter Physics


Dive into the research topics of 'Protein electron transfer: is biology (thermo)dynamic?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this