Proton transfer in nucleobases is mediated by water
Water plays a central role in chemistry and biology by mediating the interactions between molecules, altering energy levels of solvated species, modifying potential energy profiles along reaction coordinates, and facilitating efficient proton transport through ion channels and interfaces. This study investigates proton transfer in a model system comprising dry and microhydrated clusters of nucleobases. With mass spectrometry and tunable vacuum ultraviolet synchrotron radiation, we show that water shuts down ionization-induced proton transfer between nucleobases, which is very efficient in dry clusters. Instead, a new pathway opens up in which protonated nucleobases are generated by proton transfer from the ionized water molecule and elimination of a hydroxyl radical. Electronic structure calculations reveal that the shape of the potential energy profile along the proton transfer coordinate depends strongly on the character of the molecular orbital from which the electron is removed, i.e., the proton transfer from water to nucleobases is barrierless when an ionized state localized on water is accessed. The computed energetics of proton transfer is in excellent agreement with the experimental appearance energies. Possible adiabatic passage on the ground electronic state of the ionized system, while energetically accessible at lower energies, is not efficient. Thus, proton transfer is controlled electronically, by the character of the ionized state, rather than statistically, by simple energy considerations.