A systematic study of the proton transfer in the 7-azaindole - water clusters (7-AI(H2O)n; n = 1-4) in both the ground and first excited singlet electronic states is undertaken. DFT(B3LYP) calculations for the ground electronic state shows that the more stable geometry of the initial normal tautomer presents a cyclic set of hydrogen bonds that links the two nitrogen atoms of the base across the waters. For the n = 4 cluster the water molecules adopt a double ring structure so that two cycles of hydrogen bonds are found there. From this structure full tautomerization implies only one transition state so that a concerted but non-synchronous process is predicted by our theoretical calculations. This behavior is found both in the ground and the excited states where CIS geometry optimizations and TD(B3LYP) energy calculations are performed. The difference between both states is the height of the energy barrier that is much lower in the excited state. Another clear difference between both electronic states is that full tautomerization is an endergonic process in the ground state whereas it is clearly exergonic (then favorable) in the excited state. This is so because electronic excitation implies a charge transfer from the five-member cycle to the six-member one of 7-azaindole so that the proton transfer from the pyrrolic side to the pyridinic one is favored. These results clearly indicate that full tautomerization will not likely occur in the ground state but it will be quite easy (and fast) in the excited state. Reaction is already feasible in the S1 1:1 complex but it is faster in the 1:2 complex. However the reaction slows again for the 1:3 complex and, finally, reaches a new maximum for the largest cluster studied here, the n = 4 case. These results, which are in agreement with experimental data, are explained in terms of the number of hydrogen bonds that are involved in the transfer. The proton transfer through a ring formed by the substrate and two water molecules is found to be the more efficient one, at least in this system. © 2003 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.