Electron Bifurcation: Thermodynamics and Kinetics of Two-Electron Brokering in Biological Redox Chemistry

Paul King, Carolyn Lubner, David Mulder, Peng Zhang, Jonathon Yuly, John Peters, David Beratan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus Citations


ConspectusHow can proteins drive two electrons from a redox active donor onto two acceptors at very different potentials and distances? And how can this transaction be conducted without dissipating very much energy or violating the laws of thermodynamics? Nature appears to have addressed these challenges by coupling thermodynamically uphill and downhill electron transfer reactions, using two-electron donor cofactors that have very different potentials for the removal of the first and second electron. Although electron bifurcation is carried out with near perfection from the standpoint of energy conservation and electron delivery yields, it is a biological energy transduction paradigm that has only come into focus recently. This Account provides an exegesis of the biophysical principles that underpin electron bifurcation.Remarkably, bifurcating electron transfer (ET) proteins typically send one electron uphill and one electron downhill by similar energies, such that the overall reaction is spontaneous, but not profligate. Electron bifurcation in the NADH-dependent reduced ferredoxin: NADP+ oxidoreductase I (Nfn) is explored in detail here. Recent experimental progress in understanding the structure and function of Nfn allows us to dissect its workings in the framework of modern ET theory. The first electron that leaves the two-electron donor flavin (L-FAD) executes a positive free energy "uphill" reaction, and the departure of this electron switches on a second thermodynamically spontaneous ET reaction from the flavin along a second pathway that moves electrons in the opposite direction and at a very different potential. The singly reduced ET products formed from the bifurcating flavin are more than two nanometers distant from each other. In Nfn, the second electron to leave the flavin is much more reducing than the first: the potentials are said to be "crossed." The eventually reduced cofactors, NADH and ferredoxin in the case of Nfn, perform crucial downstream redox processes of their own.We dissect the thermodynamics and kinetics of electron bifurcation in Nfn and find that the key features of electron bifurcation are (1) spatially separated transfer pathways that diverge from a two-electron donor, (2) one thermodynamically uphill and one downhill redox pathway, with a large negative shift in the donor's reduction potential after departure of the first electron, and (3) electron tunneling and activation factors that enable bifurcation, producing a 1:1 partitioning of electrons onto the two pathways.Electron bifurcation is found in the CO2 reducing pathways of methanogenic archaea, in the hydrogen pathways of hydrogenases, in the nitrogen fixing pathway of Fix, and in the mitochondrial charge transfer chain of complex III, cytochrome bc1. While crossed potentials may offer the biological advantage of producing tightly regulated high energy reactive species, neither kinetic nor thermodynamic considerations mandate crossed potentials to generate successful electron bifurcation. Taken together, the theoretical framework established here, focusing on the underpinning electron tunneling barriers and activation free energies, explains the logic of electron bifurcation that enables energy conversion and conservation in Nfn, points toward bioinspired schemes to execute multielectron redox chemistry, and establishes a roadmap for examining novel electron bifurcation networks in nature.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)2410-2417
Number of pages8
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number9
StatePublished - 19 Sep 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 American Chemical Society.

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-68936


  • electron bifurcation
  • kinetics
  • thermodynamics


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