We monitored the occupancy of a functionally important non-coordinated water molecule in the distal heme pocket of sperm whale myoglobin over the pH range 4.3-9.4. Water occupancy was assessed by using time-resolved spectroscopy to detect the perturbation of the heme visible band absorption spectrum caused by water entry after CO photodissociation (Goldbeck, R. A., Bhaskaran, S., Ortega, C., Mendoza, J. L., Olson, J. S., Soman, J., Kliger, D. S., and Esquerra, R. M. (2006) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 103, 1254-125916432219). We found that the water occupancy observed during the time interval between ligand photolysis and diffusive recombination decreased by nearly 20% as the pH was lowered below 6. This decrease accounted for most of the concomitant increase in the observed CO bimolecular recombination rate constant, as the lower water occupancy presented a smaller kinetic barrier to CO entry into the pocket at lower pH. These results were consistent with a model in which the distal histidine, which stabilizes the water molecule within the distal pocket by accepting a hydrogen bond, tends to swing out of the pocket upon protonation and destabilize the water occupancy at low pH. Extrapolation of this model to lower pH suggests that the additional increase in ligand association rate constant observed previously in stopped-flow studies at pH 3 may also be due in part to reduced distal water occupancy concomitant with further His64 protonation and coupled protein conformational change
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