Reductive Elimination of H2 Activates Nitrogenase to Reduce the N≡N Triple Bond: Characterization of the E4(4H) Janus Intermediate in Wild-Type Enzyme

Document Type


Journal/Book Title

Journal of the American Chemical Society

Publication Date



American Chemical Society





First Page



We proposed a reductive elimination/oxidative addition (re/oa) mechanism for reduction of N2 to 2NH3 by nitrogenase, based on identification of a freeze-trapped intermediate of the α-70Val→IleMoFe protein as the Janus intermediate that stores four reducing equivalents on FeMo-co as two [Fe–H–Fe] bridging hydrides (denoted E4(4H)). The mechanism postulates that obligatory re of the hydrides as H2 drives reduction of N2 to a state (denoted E4(2N2H)) with a moiety at the diazene (HN═NH) reduction level bound to the catalytic FeMo-co. EPR/ENDOR/photophysical measurements on wild type (WT) MoFe protein now establish this mechanism. They show that a state freeze-trapped during N2 reduction by WT MoFe is the same Janus intermediate, thereby establishing the α-70Val→Ile intermediate as a reliable guide to mechanism. Monitoring the Janus state in WT MoFe during N2 reduction under mixed-isotope condition, H2O buffer/D2, and the converse, establishes that the bridging hydrides/deuterides do not exchange with solvent during enzymatic turnover, thereby solving longstanding puzzles. Relaxation of E4(2N2H) to the WT resting-state is shown to occur via oa of H2 and release of N2 to form Janus, followed by sequential release of two H2, demonstrating the kinetic reversibility of the re/oa equilibrium. Relative populations of E4(2N2H)/E4(4H) freeze-trapped during WT turnover furthermore show that the reversible re/oa equilibrium between [E4(4H) + N2] and [E4(2N2H) + H2] is ∼ thermoneutral (ΔreG0 ∼ −2 kcal/mol), whereas, by itself, hydrogenation of N2(g) is highly endergonic. These findings demonstrate that (i) re/oa accounts for the historical Key Constraintson mechanism, (ii) that Janus is central to N2 reduction by WT enzyme, which (iii) indeed occurs via the re/oa mechanism. Thus, emerges a picture of the central mechanistic steps by which nitrogenase carries out one of the most challenging chemical transformations in biology.