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ODU Professor’s Research on Water as a Protonic Conductor Published in Nature Research Journal

By Joe Garvey

James W. Lee, a tenured faculty member of chemistry and biochemistry at Old Dominion University, has published an article in the nature research journal Scientific Reports outlining a major new bioenergetics theory on "transmembrane-electrostatic proton localization." Lee said his findings "will change textbooks and have practical implications to our health and lives."

The article, "Protonic Capacitor: Elucidating the Biological Significance of Mitochondrial Cristae Formation," lays out how water acts as a "protonic conductor" in our bodies in a way similar to an electric conductor. It explains, for the first time, why the human body's mitochondria form cristae and why the ATP synthase enzymes are located at the tips of mitochondrial cristae as visualized recently by scientists using cryo-electron microscopic techniques.

"This is a new theory with experimental proof," he said. "We already have a new proton model for the equations."

He said protons repel one another in water and localize on the surface of the mitochondrial membranes. Part of their thermal motion energy is converted into chemical energy, a component "that was missed for 50 years." Scientists previously thought protons "danced" in the water but didn't go to the membrane surface, he said.

Lee explained that when protons are pumped across the mitochondrial membrane through respiration, they leave excess hydroxyl anions inside the mitochondria while accumulating excess protons on the other side of the membrane. This results in the formation of "anions-membrane-protons capacitor" because of the effect of water as a protonic conductor. The excess protons are transmembrane electrostatically localized at the liquid-membrane interface, which helps drive the synthesis of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) energy, which fuels many processes in our cells."Our bodies' active chemical energy that powers our brain and muscles is basically ATP," he said. Based on the article, the localized protons at the liquid-membrane interface play a significant role in driving the synthesis of ATP.

This finding led to a set of new protonic motive force equations that are published in the article.

"They will likely enter the textbooks to better educate a new generation of Americans and peoples around the world," Lee said.

This work has profound implications. For example, the research with the new protonic motive force equations revealed that the transmembrane electrostatically localized protons at the liquid-membrane interface can isothermally utilize their thermal motion kinetic energy to help drive the synthesis of ATP, converting part of the environmental heat energy into ATP chemical energy.

"That was previously believed to be impossible for centuries," Lee said. "We now understand it is water as protonic conductor and the asymmetric feature of the biological membrane makes this possible."

The asymmetric biological membrane feature apparently results from billions of years of evolution and natural selection, Lee said.

Therefore, he said, this research helps to address "the questions of who we are and how life began on Earth in terms of protonic bioenergetics."

The critical role of water as protonic conductor in biological energy transduction also explains why dehydration can be fatal.

"The lack of water in cells will impact the protonic energy transduction in making the ATP energy that we use 24/7," he said.

Through this research, Lee said we now also understand that the neuron action potential conduction, for example from our brains to our hands, is through protonic conduction along the water inside the neuron as well.

"There is no electronic circuit in neural systems," he said. "This research suggests our neural systems, including the human brain, are likely based on a type of protonic circuit using the water-based protonic wires along the neuron cells."

Lee's research is also being published in two other journals:

  • ACS Omega. That article is titled "Isothermal Environmental Heat Energy Utilization by Transmembrane Electrostatically Localized Protons at the Liquid Membrane Interface."
  • Journal of Neurophysiology, with the title "Protonic conductor: Better Understanding Neural Resting and Action Potential."

Lee's future research will focus on employing this new finding to answer the fundamental questions about the biophysical origin of neuron action potential and how human memory works.

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