Giliberti, V.; Polito, R.; Ritter, E.; Broser, M.; Hegemann, P.; Puskar, L.; Schade, U.; Zanetti-Polzi, L.; Daidone, I.; Corni, S.; Rusconi, F.; Biagioni, P.; Baldassarre, L.; Ortolani, M.: Tip-enhanced Infrared Difference-Nanospectroscopy of the Proton Pump Activity of Bacteriorhodopsin in Single Purple Membrane Patche. Nano Letters 19 (2019), p. 3104-3114
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Photosensitive proteins embedded in the cell membrane (about 5 nm thickness) act as photoactivated proton pumps, ion gates, enzymes or, more generally, as initiators of stimuli for the cell activity. They are constituted of a protein backbone and a covalently bound cofactor, e.g. the retinal chromophore in bacteriorhodopsin (BR), channelrhodopsin and other opsins. The light-induced conformational changes of both the cofactor and the protein are at the basis of the physiological functions of photosensitive proteins. Despite the dramatic development of microscopy techniques, investigating conformational changes of proteins at the membrane monolayer level is still a big challenge. Techniques based on atomic force microscopy (AFM) can detect electric currents through protein monolayers and even molecular binding forces in single protein molecules, but not the conformational changes. For the latter, Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) using difference-spectroscopy mode is typically employed, but on macroscopic liquid suspensions or thick films containing large amounts of purified photosensitive proteins. In this work we develop AFM-assisted, tip-enhanced infrared difference-nanospectroscopy to investigate light-induced conformational changes of the bacteriorhodopsin mutant D96N in single sub-micrometric native purple membrane patches. We obtain a significant improvement compared to the signal-to-noise ratio of standard IR nanospectroscopy techniques by exploiting the field enhancement in the plasmonic nanogap that forms between a gold-coated AFM probe tip and an ultraflat gold surface, as further supported by electromagnetic and thermal simulations. IR difference-spectra in the 1450-1800 cm-1 range are recorded from individual patches as thin as 10 nm, with diameter of less than 500 nm, well beyond the diffraction limit for FTIR microspectroscopy. We find clear spectroscopic evidence of a branching of the photocycle for BR molecules in direct contact with the gold surfaces, with equal amounts of proteins either following the standard proton-pump photocycle or being trapped in an intermediate state not directly contributing to light-induced proton transport. Our results are particularly relevant for BR-based optoelectronic and energy-harvesting devices, where BR molecular monolayers are put in contact with metal surfaces, and, more generally, for AFM-based IR spectroscopy studies of conformational changes of proteins embedded in intrinsically heterogeneous native cell membranes.