High-resolution, solid-state 15N NMR has been used to study the chemical shift anisotropies of the Schiff bases in bacteriorhodopsin (bR) and in an extensive series of model compounds. Using slow-spinning techniques, we are able to obtain sufficient rotational sideband intensity to determine the full 15N chemical shift anisotropy for the Schiff base nitrogen in bR548 and bR568. Comparisons are made between all-trans-bR568 and N-all-trans-retinylidem butylimine salts with halide, phenolate, and carboxylate counterions. It is argued that for the model compounds the variation in 15N chemical shift reflects the variation in (hydrogen) bond strength with the various counterions. The results suggest that carboxylates and tyrosinates may form hydrogen bonds of comparable strength in a hydrophobic environment. Thus, the hydrogen bonding strength of a counterion depends on factors that are not completely reflected in the solution pKa of its conjugate acid. For the model compounds, the two most downfield principal values of the 15N chemical shift tensor, δ22 and δ–33, vary dramatically with different counterions, whereas δ11 remains essentially unaffected. In addition, there exists a linear correlation between δ22 and δ33, which suggests that a single mechanism is responsible for the variation in chemical shifts present in all three classes of model compounds. The data for bR568 follow this trend, but the isotropic shift is 11 ppm further upfield than any of the model compounds. This extreme value suggests an unusually weak hydrogen bond in the protein.
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