A compound bound covalently to an enzyme active site can act either as a substrate if the covalent linkage is readily broken up by the enzyme or as an inhibitor if the bond dissociates slowly. We tracked the reactivity of such bonds associated with the rise of the resistance to penicillin G (PenG) in protein evolution from penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs) to TEM beta-lactamases, and with the development of avibactam (Avb) to overcome the resistance. We found that the ester linkage in PBP–PenG is resistant to hydrolysis mainly due to the small electric fields present in the protein active site. Conversely, the same linkage in the descendant TEM–PenG experiences large electric fields which stabilize the more charge-separated transition state and thus lower the free energy barrier to hydrolysis. Specifically, the electric fields were improved from -59 to -140 MV/cm in an ancient evolution dating back billions of years, contributing 5 orders of magnitude rate acceleration. This trend continues today in the nullification of newly developed antibiotic drugs. The fast linkage hydrolysis acquired from evolution is counteracted by the upgrade of PenG to Avb whose linkage escapes from the hydrolysis by returning to a low-field environment. Using the framework of electrostatic catalysis, the electric field, an observable from vibrational spectroscopy, provides a unifying physical metric to understand protein evolution and to guide the design of covalent drugs.
Protein expression and purification, mass spectrometry, vibrational spectroscopy, kinetics of TEM–Avb linkage hydrolysis, and MD simulations