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Keil, Lorenz M. R.; Möller, Friederike M.; Kieß, Michael; Kudella, Patrick W.; Mast, Christof B. (2017): Proton gradients and pH oscillations emerge from heat flow at the microscale. In: Nature Communications, Vol. 8, 1897


Proton gradients are essential for biological systems. They not only drive the synthesis of ATP, but initiate molecule degradation and recycling inside lysosomes. However, the high mobility and permeability of protons through membranes make pH gradients very hard to sustain in vitro. Here we report that heat flow across a water-filled chamber forms and sustains stable pH gradients. Charged molecules accumulate by convection and thermo- phoresis better than uncharged species. In a dissociation reaction, this imbalances the reaction equilibrium and creates a difference in pH. In solutions of amino acids, phosphate, or nucleotides, we achieve pH differences of up to 2 pH units. The same mechanism cycles biomolecules by convection in the created proton gradient. This implements a feedback between biomolecules and a cyclic variation of the pH. The finding provides a mechanism to create a self-sustained proton gradient to drive biochemical reactions.