A Simple Complex on the Verge of Breakdown: Isolation of the Elusive Cyanoformate Ion

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Science  04 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6179, pp. 75-78
DOI: 10.1126/science.1250808

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Cyanide Hitches a Ride

Cyanide is a by-product of the biosynthesis of ethylene in plants and it has been somewhat puzzling how the ion is safely removed before it can shut down enzymatic pathways by coordination to catalytic iron centers. A proposed mechanism has implicated the cyanoformate ion—essentially, a weak adduct of cyanide and carbon dioxide—as the initial product, although its lifetime was uncertain. Murphy et al. (p. 75; see the Perspective by Alabugin and Mohamed) crystallized this previously elusive adduct and found that its solution-phase stability varies inversely with the dielectric properties of the medium. The results bolster a picture in which the adduct shuttles the cyanide away from the hydrophobic confines of the enzyme before releasing the cyanide into the more polar aqueous surroundings.


Why does cyanide not react destructively with the proximal iron center at the active site of 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxylic acid (ACC) oxidase, an enzyme central to the biosynthesis of ethylene in plants? It has long been postulated that the cyanoformate anion, [NCCO2], forms and then decomposes to carbon dioxide and cyanide during this process. We have now isolated and crystallographically characterized this elusive anion as its tetraphenylphosphonium salt. Theoretical calculations show that cyanoformate has a very weak C–C bond and that it is thermodynamically stable only in low dielectric media. Solution stability studies have substantiated the latter result. We propose that cyanoformate shuttles the potentially toxic cyanide away from the low dielectric active site of ACC oxidase before breaking down in the higher dielectric medium of the cell.

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