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J Phys Chem B. 2012 May 10;116(18):5425-36. doi: 10.1021/jp300588q. Epub 2012 Apr 30.

On the interaction of aliphatic amines and ammonium ions with carboxylic acids in solution and in receptor pockets.

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Center for Drug Design and Development, The University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio 43606, USA.


Association energies of the acetate ion with cationic amines bearing one to three methyl groups were calculated in the range of -14 to -17 kcal/mol in aqueous solution by means of the IEF-PCM method at the CCSD(T)/CBS//MP2/aug-cc-pvdz and DFT/B97D/CBS//B97D/aug-cc-pvtz levels. The main stabilization factor for the association is the possibility for the formation of an ionic intermolecular hydrogen bond between the elements of the complex. For a quaternary ammonium ion, the favorable electrostatic interaction energy is the only driving force, and the stabilization energy for the complex is reduced to -4 kcal/mol. The internal free energies of the ion-pair tautomers of the studied species are higher by 10-15 kcal/mol in water than those for the neutral, hydrogen-bonded forms. Monte Carlo free energy perturbation calculations at T = 298 K and p = 1 atm predict -11 to -16 kcal/mol relative solvation free energy in favor of the corresponding ionic form. As a result, the ion-pair tautomer is the prevailing form in aqueous solution and on the extracellular surface of a receptor. Modeling the complex of a protonated ligand interacting with an Asp/Glu carboxylate side-chain in the binding cavity of a receptor, two strongly bound water molecules were considered so as to form hydrogen-bonded water bridges between the elements of the ion-pair. Nonetheless, the low polarity environment mimicked by a chloroform solvent cannot stabilize the ionic tautomer. A proton jump was predicted, which suggests that acetylcholine, an inherent cation by structure, might have evolved as the natural agonist for muscarinic receptors because a quaternary ammonium system assures the maintenance of the ion-pair form with a carboxylate side-chain in a protein cavity, the latter perhaps then being needed for receptor activation.

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