Exploring the Catalytic Mechanism of Human Glutamine Synthetase by Computer Simulations

Glutamine synthetase is an important enzyme that catalyzes the ATP-dependent formation of glutamine from glutamate and ammonia. In mammals, it plays a key role in preventing excitotoxicity in the brain and detoxifying ammonia in the liver. In plants and bacteria, it is fundamental for nitrogen metabolism, being critical for the survival of the organism. In this work, we show how the use of classical molecular dynamics simulations and multiscale quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics simulations allowed us to examine the structural properties and dynamics of human glutamine synthetase (HsGS), as well as the reaction mechanisms involved in the catalytic process with atomic level detail. Our results suggest that glutamine formation proceeds through a two-step mechanism that includes a first step in which the γ-glutamyl phosphate intermediate forms, with a 5 kcal/mol free energy barrier and a −8 kcal/mol reaction free energy, and then a second rate-limiting step involving the ammonia nucleophilic attack, with a free energy barrier of 19 kcal/mol and a reaction free energy of almost zero. A detailed analysis of structural features within each step exposed the relevance of the acid–base equilibrium related to protein residues and substrates in the thermodynamics and kinetics of the reactions. These results provide a comprehensive study of HsGS dynamics and establish the groundwork for further analysis regarding changes in HsGS activity, as occur in natural variants and post-translational modifications.