Internal Conversion of the Anionic GFP Chromophore: In and Out of the I-twisted S1/S0 Conical Intersection Seam


Nanna H. List, Chey M. Jones and Todd J. Martínez

Chem. Sci., 2022, 13, 373


The functional diversity of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) family is intimately connected to the interplay between competing photo-induced transformations of the chromophore motif, anionic phydroxybenzylidene-2,3-dimethylimidazolinone (HBDI). Its ability to undergo Z/E-isomerization is of particular importance for super-resolution microscopy and emerging opportunities in optogenetics. Yet, key dynamical features of the underlying internal conversion process in the native HBDI chromophore remain largely elusive. We investigate the intrinsic excited-state behavior of isolated HBDI to resolve competing decay pathways and map out the factors governing efficiency and the stereochemical outcome of photoisomerization. Based on non-adiabatic dynamics simulations, we demonstrate that non-selective progress along the two bridge-torsional (i.e., phenolate, P, or imidazolinone, I) pathways accounts for the three decay constants reported experimentally, leading to competing ultrafast relaxation primarily along the I-twisted pathway and S1 trapping along the P-torsion. The majority of the population (70%) is transferred to S0 in the vicinity of two approximately enantiomeric minima on the Itwisted intersection seam (MECI-Is). Despite their sloped, reactant-biased topographies (suggesting low photoproduct yields), we find that decay through these intersections leads to products with a surprisingly high quantum yield of 30%. This demonstrates that E-isomer generation results at least in part from direct isomerization on the excited state. A photoisomerization committor analysis reveals a difference in intrinsic photoreactivity of the two MECI-Is and that the observed photoisomerization is the combined result of two effects: early, non-statistical dynamics around the less reactive intersection followed by later, near-statistical behavior around the more reactive MECI-I. Our work offers new insight into internal conversion of HBDI that both establishes the intrinsic properties of the chromophore and enlightens principles for the design of chromophore derivatives and protein variants with improved photoswitching properties.