Small and efficient: Water nanodroplets cool biomolecules ultrafast

November 30, 2012
Figure 1: Upper left: Schematic of a reverse micelle consisting of phospholipid molecules. The phosphate groups of the lipid molecules (blue spheres) are arranged at the inner surface of the micelle. Water molecules are located in the inner part of the micelle. Upper right: Enlarged view of the structure of a phospholipid molecule. Oxygen atoms are shown in red, hydrogen atoms in white, carbon atoms in grey, the nitrogen atom in blue, and the phosphorus atom in orange. The angled water molecules are arranged around the phosphate (PO4) group. Lower part: Scheme of energy transfer. In the experiments, the (asymmetric) phosphate vibration is initially excited (red oxygen atoms). The energy released in the decay of the vibration is transferred to the surrounding water shell (red H2O molecules) within 1 ps.

Researchers of the Max-Born-Institute at Berlin, Germany, have observed how biomolecules transfer energy into extremely small water droplets in their environment. A water shell consisting of only 3 water molecules around a phospholipid molecule is sufficient for energy transfer within 1 ps.

occur mainly in an aqueous environment. Particular groups of a are embedded in a shell of , a process called hydration. The water shell stabilizes the biomolecular structure and enables an exchange of energy between the biomolecule and its environment. Examples are the of DNA, the carrier of basic genetic information, in an aqueous medium and the membranes of living cells which consist of phospholipids. The , the speed and the efficiency of energy exchange between the biomolecule and the water shell are understood only in part and, thus, a topic of current basic research.

Scientists of the Max-Born-Institute have shown that extremely small embedding a phospholipid molecule enable efficient energy transfer on a time scale of 1 ps (1 ps = 10-12). René Costard, Christian Greve, Ismael Heisler, and Thomas Elsaesser report in the current issue of Letters (vol.3, page 3646, 2012) that 3 water molecules around the phosphate group of the phospholipid are sufficient for transferring the energy of vibrations from the phospholipid into this minimal water shell. The transferred energy heats the water shell by 10 to 20 centigrades. The thermal energy is stored in tilting motions of water molecules, so called librations, and leads to a weakening of the interaction between the water molecules, the so called . The overall molecular structure of the water shell remains practically unchanged. This extremely efficient mechanism of energy disposal allows for the transfer of even larger amounts of energy, protecting the biomolecule against damage by overheating.

Figure 2: Two-dimensional infrared spectra of OH stretching vibrations of a water shell consisting of 3 water molecules per phosphate group. The left panel shows the spectrum of excited OH stretching vibrations of the water shell at 0.125 ps. The yellow-red signal is plotted as a function of the excitation and the detection frequency. The OH stretching spectrum at 1.5 ps (right panel) is characteristic of a heated water shell. The additional component at high detection frequencies (blue contour) is due to the weakened interaction between water molecules in the heated water shell.

The researchers studied a phospholipid model system consisting of the DOPC molecules shown in Fig. 1. The molecules are arranged in so-called reverse micelles which contain the water molecules hydrating the phosphate groups. In this geometry, the hydration level, i.e., water content, can be changed in a wide range. For studying energy transfer, either phosphate vibrations of the phospholipid or OH stretching vibrations of water are excited by an infrared pulse of a 0.1 ps duration. The vibrations decay within a fraction of a picosecond and the energy released in this decay is transferred into the water shell. The transfer and redistribution of energy is mapped via transient two-dimensional infrared spectra of the OH stretching vibration of water. The weakening of hydrogen bonds in the heated water shell leads to a shift of the OH stretching spectra to higher frequencies. Measuring the change of the two-dimensional spectra as a function of time provides direct insight into the energy transfer dynamics.

Explore further: The Shapes of Molecules Really Matter for Heat Conduction

Related Stories

The Shapes of Molecules Really Matter for Heat Conduction

September 24, 2004

Too much heat can destroy a sturdy automobile engine or a miniature microchip. As scientists and engineers strive to make ever-smaller nanoscale devices, from molecular motors and switches to single-molecule transistors, ...

Identifying the 'Signatures' of Protons in Water

July 13, 2005

Free protons from acids associate with 1, 2 or 3 molecules of water and the structures can be identified by unique infrared laser spectrum signatures, according to a report in Science by Yale professor of chemistry Mark A. ...

Hydrogen bonds: Scientists find new mechanism

September 9, 2008

Water’s unrivaled omnipresence and the crucial role it plays in life drives scientists’ to understand every detail of its unusual underlying properties on the microscopic scale.

How do free electrons originate?

January 20, 2010

Scientists at Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) in Garching and Greifswald and Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin, Germany, have discovered a new way in which high-energy radiation in water can release slow electrons. ...

Recommended for you

Force triggers gene expression by stretching chromatin

August 26, 2016

How genes in our DNA are expressed into traits within a cell is a complicated mystery with many players, the main suspects being chemical. However, a new study by University of Illinois researchers and collaborators in China ...

3-D printed structures that 'remember' their shapes

August 26, 2016

Engineers from MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) are using light to print three-dimensional structures that "remember" their original shapes. Even after being stretched, twisted, and bent at extreme ...

New method developed for producing some metals

August 25, 2016

The MIT researchers were trying to develop a new battery, but it didn't work out that way. Instead, thanks to an unexpected finding in their lab tests, what they discovered was a whole new way of producing the metal antimony—and ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.