We medicinal chemists talk a good game when it comes to the the hydrophobic effect. It’s the way that non-water-soluble molecules (or parts of molecules) like to associate with each other, right? Sure thing. And it works because of. . .well, van der Waals forces. Or displacement of water molecules from protein surfaces. Or entropic effects. Or all of those, plus some other stuff that, um, complicated to explain. Something like that.
Here’s a paper in Angewandte Chemie that really bears down on the topic. The authors study the binding of simple ligands to thermolysin, a well-worked-out system for which very high-resolution X-ray structures are available. And what they find is, well, that things really are complicated to explain:
In summary, there are no universally valid reasons why the hydrophobic effect should be predominantly “entropic” or “enthalpic”; small structural changes in the binding features of water molecules on the molecular level determine whether hydrophobic binding is enthalpically or entropically driven.
Admittedly, this study reaches the limits of experimental accuracy accomplishable in contemporary protein–ligand structural work. . .Surprising pairwise systematic changes in the thermodynamic data are experienced for complexes of related ligands, and they are convincingly well reflected by the structural properties. The present study unravels small but important details. Computational methods simulate molecular properties at the atomic level, and are usually determined by the summation of many small details. However, details such as those observed here are usually not regarded by these computational methods as relevant, simply because we are not fully aware of their importance for protein–ligand binding, structure–activity relationships, and rational drug design in general. . .
I think that there are a lot of things in this area of which we’re not fully aware. There are many others that we treat as unified phenomena, because we’ve given them names that make us imagine that they are. The hydrophobic effect is definitely one of these – George Whitesides is right when he says that there are many of them. But when all of these effects, on closer inspection, break down into tiny, shifting, tricky arrays of conflicting components, can you blame us for simplifying?