Structural basis of perturbed pKa values of catalytic groups in enzyme active sites

Thomas K. Harris, George J. Turner

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

370 Scopus citations


In protein and RNA macromolecules, only a limited number of different side-chain chemical groups are available to function as catalysts. The myriad of enzyme-catalyzed reactions results from the ability of most of these groups to function either as nucleophilic, electrophilic, or general acid-base catalysts, and the key to their adapted chemical function lies in their states of protonation. Ionization is determined by the intrinsic pKa of the group and the microenvironment created around the group by the protein or RNA structure, which perturbs its intrinsic pKa to its functional or apparent pKa. These pKa shifts result from interactions of the catalytic group with other fully or partially charged groups as well as the polarity or dielectric of the medium that surrounds it. The electrostatic interactions between ionizable groups found on the surface of macromolecules are weak and cause only slight pKa perturbations (<2 units). The sum of many of these weak electrostatic interactions helps contribute to the stability of native or folded macromolecules and their ligand complexes. However, the pKa values of catalytic groups that are found in the active sites of numerous enzymes are significantly more perturbed (>2 units) and are the subject of this review. The magnitudes of these pKa perturbations are analyzed with respect to the structural details of the active-site microenvironment and the energetics of the reactions that they catalyze.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)85-98
Number of pages14
JournalIUBMB life
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2002


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  • Bacteriorhodopsin
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  • Glycosidase
  • Serine protease
  • Thioredoxin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cell Biology


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