Kinetic and Conformational Insights of Protein Adsorption onto Montmorillonite Revealed Using in Situ ATR-FTIR/2D-COS

Protein adsorption onto clay minerals is a process with wide-ranging impacts on the environmental cycling of nutrients and contaminants. This process is influenced by kinetic and conformational factors that are often challenging to probe in situ. This study represents an in situ attenuated total reflectance Fourier transform infrared (ATR-FTIR) spectroscopic investigation of the adsorption of a model protein (bovine serum albumin (BSA)) onto a clay mineral (montmorillonite) at four concentrations (1.50, 3.75, 7.50, and 15.0 μM) under environmentally relevant conditions. At all concentrations probed, FTIR spectra show that BSA readily adsorbs onto montmorillonite. Adsorption kinetics follow an Elovich model, suggesting that primary limitations on adsorption rates are surface-related heterogeneous energetic restrictions associated with protein rearrangement and lateral protein–protein interaction. BSA adsorption onto montmorillonite fits the Langmuir model, yielding K = 5.97 × 105 M–1. Deconvolution and curve fitting of the amide I band at the end of the adsorption process (∼120 min) shows a large extent of BSA unfolding upon adsorption at 1.50 μM, with extended chains and turns increasing at the expense of α-helices. At higher concentrations/surface coverages, BSA unfolding is less pronounced and a more compact structure is assumed. Two-dimensional correlation spectroscopic (2D-COS) analysis reveals three different pathways corresponding to adsorbed conformations. At 1.50 μM, adsorption increases extended chains, followed by a loss in α-helices and a subsequent increase in turns. At 3.75 μM, extended chains decrease and then aggregated strands increase and side chains decrease, followed by a decrease in turns. With 7.50 and 15.0 μM BSA, the loss of side-chain vibrations is followed by an increase in aggregated strands and a subsequent decrease in turns and extended chains. Overall, the BSA concentration and resultant surface coverage have a profound impact on the dynamics of BSA adsorption onto montmorillonite. These results enhance our understanding of the molecular-level protein dynamics and stabilization of organic matter at mineral surfaces.