Force-activated reactivity switch in a bimolecular chemical reaction
The effect of mechanical force on the free-energy surface that governs a chemical reaction is largely unknown. The combination of protein engineering with single-molecule force-clamp spectroscopy allows us to study the influence of mechanical force on the rate at which a protein disulfide bond is reduced by nucleophiles in a bimolecular substitution reaction (SN2). We found that cleavage of a protein disulfide bond by hydroxide anions exhibits an abrupt reactivity 'switch' at ~500 pN, after which the accelerating effect of force on the rate of an SN2 chemical reaction greatly diminishes. We propose that an abrupt force-induced conformational change of the protein disulfide bond shifts its ground state, drastically changing its reactivity in SN2 chemical reactions. Our experiments directly demonstrate the action of a force-activated switch in the chemical reactivity of a single molecule.