At pH >7, proteorhodopsin functions as an outward-directed proton pump in cell membranes, and Asp-97 and Glu-108, the homologues of the Asp-85 and Asp-96 in bacteriorhodopsin, are the proton acceptor and donor to the retinal Schiff base, respectively. It was reported, however [Friedrich, T. et al. (2002) J. Mol. Biol., 321, 821,-838], that proteorhodopsin transports protons also at pH <7 where Asp-97 is protonated and in the direction reverse from that at higher pH. To explore the roles of Asp-97 and Glu-108 in the proposed pumping with variable vectoriality, we compared the photocycles of D97N and E108Q mutants, and the effects of azide on the photocycle of the E108Q mutant, at low and high pH. Unlike at high pH, at a pH low enough to protonate Asp-97 neither the mutations nor the effects of azide revealed evidence for the participation of the acidic residues in proton transfer, and as in the photocycle of the wild-type protein, no intermediate with unprotonated Schiff base accumulated. In view of these findings, and the doubts raised by absence of charge transfer after flash excitation at low pH, we revisited the question whether transport occurs at all under these conditions. In both oriented membrane fragments and liposomes reconstituted with proteorhodopsin, we found transport at high pH but not at low pH. Instead, proton transport activity followed the titration curve for Asp-97, with an apparent pKa of 7.1, and became zero at the pH where Asp-97 is fully protonated.
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