Research Article

A bound reaction intermediate sheds light on the mechanism of nitrogenase

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Science  30 Mar 2018:
Vol. 359, Issue 6383, pp. 1484-1489
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar2765

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Sulfur steps aside for nitrogen

Enzymatic conversion of molecular nitrogen to ammonia requires a dance of electrons and protons. The stage for that dance is the nitrogenase cofactor, a carefully constructed cluster of iron, sulfur, and carbon with homocitrate and, in some cases, bicarbonate appendages, as well as a secondary metal ion that defines the class of enzyme. The question of how this cofactor binds nitrogen has been vexingly difficult to answer. Sippel et al. report a high-resolution structure of the vanadium nitrogenase with a light atom, interpreted as nitrogen, bound to the FeV cofactor. A sulfur atom is displaced from the cofactor in this structure and is observed resting in a holding site formed by rearrangement of a glutamine residue. The putative bridging nitrogen atom suggests that diatomic nitrogen may bind to the cluster in a head-on manner, with the glutamine side chain stabilizing protonated intermediates as they are reduced.

Science, this issue p. 1484


Reduction of N2 by nitrogenases occurs at an organometallic iron cofactor that commonly also contains either molybdenum or vanadium. The well-characterized resting state of the cofactor does not bind substrate, so its mode of action remains enigmatic. Carbon monoxide was recently found to replace a bridging sulfide, but the mechanistic relevance was unclear. Here we report the structural analysis of vanadium nitrogenase with a bound intermediate, interpreted as a μ2-bridging, protonated nitrogen that implies the site and mode of substrate binding to the cofactor. Binding results in a flip of amino acid glutamine 176, which hydrogen-bonds the ligand and creates a holding position for the displaced sulfide. The intermediate likely represents state E6 or E7 of the Thorneley-Lowe model and provides clues to the remainder of the catalytic cycle.

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