Correlating Nitrile IR Frequencies to Local Electrostatics Quantifies Noncovalent Interactions of Peptides and Proteins

Noncovalent interactions, in particular the hydrogen bonds and nonspecific long-range electrostatic interactions are fundamental to biomolecular functions. A molecular understanding of the local electrostatic environment, consistently for both specific (hydrogen-bonding) and nonspecific electrostatic (local polarity) interactions, is essential for a detailed understanding of these processes. Vibrational Stark Effect (VSE) has proven to be an extremely useful method to measure the local electric field using infrared spectroscopy of carbonyl and nitrile based probes. The nitrile chemical group would be an ideal choice because of its absorption in an infrared spectral window transparent to biomolecules, ease of site-specific incorporation into proteins, and common occurrence as a substituent in various drug molecules. However, the inability of VSE to describe the dependence of IR frequency on electric field for hydrogen-bonded nitriles to date has severely limited nitrile’s utility to probe the noncovalent interactions. In this work, using infrared spectroscopy and atomistic molecular dynamics simulations, we have reported for the first time a linear correlation between nitrile frequencies and electric fields in a wide range of hydrogen-bonding environments that may bridge the existing gap between VSE and H-bonding interactions. We have demonstrated the robustness of this field-frequency correlation for both aromatic nitriles and sulfur-based nitriles in a wide range of molecules of varying size and compactness, including small molecules in complex solvation environments, an amino acid, disordered peptides, and structured proteins. This correlation, when coupled to VSE, can be used to quantify noncovalent interactions, specific or nonspecific, in a consistent manner.