Thermodynamics of Transport Through the Ammonium Transporter Amt‑1 Investigated with Free Energy Calculations

Amt-1 from Archaeoglobus fulgidus (AfAmt-1) belongs to the Amt/Rh family of ammonium/ammonia transporting membrane proteins. The transport mode and the precise microscopic permeation mechanism utilized by these proteins are intensely debated. Open questions concern the identity of the transported substrate (ammonia and/or ammonium) and whether the transport is passive or active. To address these questions, we studied the overall thermodynamics of the different transport modes as a function of the environmental conditions. Then, we investigated the thermodynamics of the underlying microscopic transport mechanisms with free energy calculations within a continuum electrostatics model. The formalism developed for this purpose is of general utility in the calculation of binding free energies for ligands with multiple protonation forms or other binding forms. The results of our calculations are compared to the available experimental and theoretical data on Amt/Rh proteins and discussed in light of the current knowledge on the physiological conditions experienced by microorganisms and plants. We found that microscopic models of electroneutral and electrogenic transport modes are in principle thermodynamically viable. However, only the electrogenic variants have a net thermodynamic driving force under the physiological conditions experienced by microorganisms and plants. Thus, the transport mechanism of AfAmt-1 is most likely electrogenic.