NMR at Low and Ultralow Temperatures

Published: Friday, 05 April 2013 - 13:00 UTC


Tycko, R., NMR at Low and Ultralow Temperatures. Acc. Chem. Res., 2013.


Solid state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) measurements at low temperatures have been common in physical sciences for many years and are becoming increasingly important in studies of biomolecular systems. This Account reviews a diverse set of projects from my laboratory, dating back to the early 1990s, that illustrate the motivations for low-temperature solid state NMR, the types of information that are available from the measurements, and likely directions for future research. These projects include NMR studies of both physical and biological systems, performed at low (cooled with nitrogen, down to 77 K) and ultralow (cooled with helium, below 77 K) temperatures, and performed with and without magic-angle spinning (MAS). NMR studies of physical systems often focus on phenomena that occur only at low temperatures. Two examples from my laboratory are studies of molecular rotation and orientational ordering in solid C60 at low temperatures and studies of unusual electronic states, called skyrmions, in two-dimensionally confined electron systems within semiconductor quantum wells. To study quantum wells, we used optical pumping of nuclear spin polarizations to enhance their NMR signals. The optical pumping phenomenon exists only at ultralow temperatures. In studies of biomolecular systems, low-temperature NMR has several motivations. In some cases, low temperatures suppress molecular tumbling, thereby permitting solid state NMR measurements on soluble proteins. Studies of AIDS-related peptide/antibody complexes illustrate this effect. In other cases, low temperatures suppress conformational exchange, thereby permitting quantitation of conformational distributions. Studies of chemically denatured states of the model protein HP35 illustrate this effect. Low temperatures and rapid freeze-quenching can also be used to trap transient intermediate states in a non-equilibrium kinetic process, as shown in studies of a transient intermediate in the rapid folding pathway of HP35. NMR sensitivity generally increases with decreasing sample temperature. Therefore, it can be useful to carry out experiments at the lowest possible temperatures, particularly in studies of biomolecular systems in frozen solutions. However, solid state NMR studies of biomolecular systems generally require rapid MAS. A novel MAS NMR probe design that uses nitrogen gas for sample spinning and cold helium only for sample cooling allows a wide variety of solid state NMR measurements to be performed on biomolecular systems at 20?25 K, where signals are enhanced by factors of 12?15 relative to measurements at room temperature. MAS NMR at ultralow temperatures also facilitates dynamic nuclear polarization (DNP), allowing sizeable additional signal enhancements and large absolute NMR signal amplitudes with relatively low microwave powers. Current research in my laboratory seeks to develop and exploit DNP-enhanced MAS NMR at ultralow temperatures, for example, in studies of transient intermediates in protein folding and aggregation processes and studies of peptide/protein complexes that can be prepared only at low concentrations.