BackgroundDetailed structural knowledge of enzyme-inhibitor complexes trapped in intermediate state is the key for a fundamental understanding of reaction mechanisms taking place in enzymes and is indispensable as a structure-guided drug design tool. Solution state NMR uniquely allows the study of active sites of enzymes in equilibrium between different tautomeric forms. In this study 1H, 19F and 15 N NMR spectroscopy has been used to probe the interaction contacts of inhibitors locked in transition states of the catalytic triad of a serine protease. It was demonstrated on the serotype II Dengue virus NS2B:NS3pro serine protease and its mutants, H51N and S135A, in complex with high-affinity ligands containing trifluoromethyl ketone (tfk) and boronic groups in the C-terminal of tetra-peptides.ResultsMonitoring 19F resonances, shows that only one of the two isomers of the tfk tetra-peptide binds with NS2B:NS3pro and that access to the bulk of the active site is limited. Moreover, there were no bound water found in proximity of the active site for any of the ligands manifesting in a favorable condition for formation of low barrier hydrogen bonds (LBHB) in the catalytic triad. Based on this data we were able to identify a locked conformation of the protein active site. The data also indicates that the different parts of the binding site most likely act independently of each other.ConclusionsOur reported findings increases the knowledge of the detailed function of the catalytic triad in serine proteases and could facilitate the development of rational structure based inhibitors that can selectively target the NS3 protease of Dengue type II (DENV2) virus. In addition the results shows the usefulness of probing active sites using 19F NMR spectroscopy.