Differential protonation at the catalytic six-iron cofactor of [FeFe]-hydrogenases revealed by 57Fe nuclear resonance X-ray scattering and quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics analyses
[FeFe]-hydrogenases are efficient biological hydrogen conversion catalysts and blueprints for technological fuel production. The relations between substrate interactions and electron/proton transfer events at their unique six-iron cofactor (H-cluster) need to be elucidated. The H-cluster comprises a four-iron cluster, [4Fe4S], linked to a diiron complex, [FeFe]. We combined 57Fe-specific X-ray nuclear resonance scattering experiments (NFS, nuclear forward scattering; NRVS, nuclear resonance vibrational spectroscopy) with quantum-mechanics/molecular-mechanics computations to study the [FeFe]-hydrogenase HYDA1 from a green alga. Selective 57Fe labeling at only [4Fe4S] or [FeFe], or at both subcomplexes was achieved by protein expression with a 57Fe salt and in vitro maturation with a synthetic diiron site precursor containing 57Fe. H-cluster states were populated under infrared spectroscopy control. NRVS spectral analyses facilitated assignment of the vibrational modes of the cofactor species. This approach revealed the H-cluster structure of the oxidized state (Hox) with a bridging carbon monoxide at [FeFe] and ligand rearrangement in the CO-inhibited state (Hox-CO). Protonation at a cysteine ligand of [4Fe4S] in the oxidized state occurring at low pH (HoxH) was indicated, in contrast to bridging hydride binding at [FeFe] in a one-electron reduced state (Hred). These findings are direct evidence for differential protonation either at the four-iron or diiron subcomplex of the H-cluster. NFS time-traces provided Mössbauer parameters such as the quadrupole splitting energy, which differ among cofactor states, thereby supporting selective protonation at either subcomplex. In combination with data for reduced states showing similar [4Fe4S] protonation as HoxH without (Hred') or with (Hhyd) a terminal hydride at [FeFe], our results imply that coordination geometry dynamics at the diiron site and proton-coupled electron transfer to either the four-iron or the diiron subcomplex discriminate catalytic and regulatory functions of [FeFe]-hydrogenases. We support a reaction cycle avoiding diiron site geometry changes during rapid H2 turnover.