Mg2+ and Mn2+ ions are critical to the functioning of phosphoryl transfer enzymes, such as restriction endonucleases. Although these ions play similar roles in the chemical steps, they govern substrate specificity via modulating sequence discrimination by up to a factor of 10(5) with Mg2+ and only up to a factor of 10 with Mn2+. To explain whether such diversity originates in fundamental differences in the electronic structures of the nucleobase-hydrated-metal ion complexes, structures and interaction energies were determined at the density functional (DFT) and second-order Møller-Plesset (MP2) levels of theory. Although both metal ions favor identical binding sites, Mn2+ complexes exhibit greater distortions from the ideal octahedral geometry and larger variability than the corresponding Mg2+ systems. In inner-shell complexes, with direct contact between the metal and the nucleobase, Mg2+ is preferred over Mn2+ in the gas phase, due primarily to nonelectrostatic effects. The interaction energies of the two metal ions are more similar in the outer-shell complexes, likely due to reduced charge transfer between the hydrated metal ion and the base moieties. Inclusion of solvation effects can amplify the relative nucleobase preferences of Mg2+ and Mn2+, indicating that bulk hydration modulates the balance between electrostatic and nonelectrostatic terms. In most cases, the base substitutions in solution are facilitated more by Mn2+ than by Mg2+. Electrostatic properties of the environment were demonstrated to have a major influence on the nucleobase preferences of the two metal ions. Overall, quantum chemical calculations suggest that the contrasting selectivity of Mg2+ and Mn2+ cofactors toward nucleobases derives from the larger flexibility of the Mn2+ complexes accompanied by the excessive polarization and charge-transfer effects as well as less favorable solvation.
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