Critical Computational Analysis Illuminates the Reductive-Elimination Mechanism that Activates Nitrogenase For N2 Reduction

Document Type


Journal/Book Title

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Publication Date



National Academy of Sciences





First Page


Last Page



Recent spectroscopic, kinetic, photophysical, and thermodynamic measurements show activation of nitrogenase for N2 → 2NH3 reduction involves the reductive elimination (re) of H2 from two [Fe-H-Fe] bridging hydrides bound to the catalytic [7Fe-9S-Mo-C-homocitrate] FeMo-cofactor (FeMo-co). These studies rationalize the Lowe-Thorneley kinetic scheme's proposal of mechanistically obligatory formation of one H2 for each N2 reduced. They also provide an overall framework for understanding the mechanism of nitrogen fixation by nitrogenase. However, they directly pose fundamental questions addressed computationally here. We here report an extensive computational investigation of the structure and energetics of possible nitrogenase intermediates using structural models for the active site with a broad range in complexity, while evaluating a diverse set of density functional theory flavors. (i) This shows that to prevent spurious disruption of FeMo-co having accumulated 4[e−/H+] it is necessary to include: all residues (and water molecules) interacting directly with FeMo-co via specific H-bond interactions; nonspecific local electrostatic interactions; and steric confinement. (ii) These calculations indicate an important role of sulfide hemilability in the overall conversion of E0 to a diazene-level intermediate. (iii) Perhaps most importantly, they explain (iiia) how the enzyme mechanistically couples exothermic H2 formation to endothermic cleavage of the N≡N triple bond in a nearly thermoneutral re/oxidative-addition equilibrium, (iiib) while preventing the “futile” generation of two H2 without N2 reduction: hydride re generates an H2 complex, but H2 is only lost when displaced by N2, to form an end-on N2 complex that proceeds to a diazene-level intermediate.


Copyright by National Academy of Sciences