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Molecular Insights into Sequence-Specific Protein Hydrolysis by a Soluble Zirconium-Oxo Cluster Catalyst.

The development of catalysts for controlled fragmentation of proteins is a critical undertaking in modern proteomics and biotechnology. {Zr6 O8 }-based metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) have emerged as promising candidates for catalysis of peptide bond hydrolysis due to their high reactivity, stability, and recyclability. However, emerging evidence suggests that protein hydrolysis mainly occurs on the MOF surface, thereby questioning the need for their highly porous 3D nature. In this work, we show that the discrete and water-soluble [Zr6 O4 (OH)4 (CH3 CO2 )8 (H2 O)2 Cl3 ]+ (Zr6 ) metal-oxo cluster (MOC), which is based on the same hexamer motif found in various {Zr6 O8 }-based MOFs, shows excellent activity toward selective hydrolysis of equine skeletal muscle myoglobin. Compared to related Zr-MOFs, Zr6 exhibits superior reactivity, with near-complete protein hydrolysis after 24 h of incubation at 60 °C, producing seven selective fragments with a molecular weight in the range of 3-15 kDa, which are of ideal size for middle-down proteomics. The high solubility and molecular nature of Zr6 allow detailed solution-based mechanistic/interaction studies, which revealed that cluster-induced protein unfolding is a key step that facilitates hydrolysis. A combination of multinuclear nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and pair distribution function analysis provided insight into the speciation of Zr6 and the ligand exchange processes occurring on the surface of the cluster, which results in the dimerization of two Zr6 clusters via bridging oxygen atoms. Considering the relevance of discrete Zr-oxo clusters as building blocks of MOFs, the molecular-level understanding reported in this work contributes to the further development of novel catalysts based on Zr-MOFs.

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