In an effort to understand the nature of chromophore-protein interactions in bacteriorhodopsin (bR), we have reinvestigated dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO)-induced changes in bR [Oesterhelt et al. (1973) Eur. J. Biochem. 40, 453-463]. We observe that dark-adapted bR (bR560) in aqueous DMSO undergoes reversible transformation to a species absorbing maximally at 480 nm (bR480). Beginning at 40% DMSO, this change results in complete conversion to bR480 at 60% DMSO. The kinetics of the reaction reveal that this transformation takes place predominantly through the all-trans isomeric form of the pigment. Thermal isomerization of the 13-cis chromophore to the all-trans form is, therefore, the rate-limiting step in the formation of bR480 from the dark-adapted bR. As in native bR, the chromophore in bR480 is linked to the protein via a protonated Schiff base, and its isomeric composition is predominantly all-trans. The formation of bR480 is associated with minor changes in the protein secondary structure, and the membrane retains crystallinity. These changes in the protein structure result in a diminished chromophore-protein interaction near the Schiff base region in bR480. Thus, we attribute the observed spectroscopic changes in bR in DMSO to structural alteration of the protein. The 13-cis chromophoric pigment appears to be resistant to this solvent-induced change. The changes in the protein structure need not be very large; displacement of the protein counterion(s) to the Schiff base, resulting from minor changes in the protein structure, can produce the observed spectral shift.
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