Photoinduced Magnetoreception

Many plants and animals are capable of perceiving the Earth’s magnetic field and responding to magnetic stimuli. A growing body of evidence suggests biological magnetoreception is a light-dependent process. A class of photoreceptor enzymes called cryptochromes is presumed to play a critical role in detecting magnetic fields.

chemical structure of a model of the cryptochrome active site, featuring a tryptophan moiety and a flavin moiety linked by a ribose-derived tether.
A simple model of a cryptochrome active site.

The absorption of visible light by cryptochromes results in a short-lived radical pair, which can exist in either a singlet or triplet magnetic state. The relative stabilities of the two magnetic states of a photo-excited cryptochrome could in theory be affected by an external magnetic field. Yet many questions about the biophysics of magnetoreception and the transduction of magnetosensory impulses remain unanswered. A new direction of research in our lab aims to elucidate the molecular mechanism of magnetoreception by preparing synthetic models of the cryptochrome radical pair and studying their magnetochemical properties.

Cryptochrome enzymes occur abundantly in the retinae of migratory birds, and the perception of the Earth’s magnetic field is believed to be crucial for the navigation of birds during their annual migration cycles. The survival of many migratory bird species hinges on their ability to modify their migration patterns to adapt to habitat loss and climate change. An accurate understanding of the mechanism of avian magnetoreception and its role in migration patterns is needed to help inform conservation policies in the anthropocene, as the rates of climate change and habitat destruction continue to rise.

Interested in this project?

If you’re a SUNY Geneseo student interested in participating in this research project, please contact Dr. Tate. This project is great for chemistry majors, especially those who are interested in chemical synthesis, molecular biophysics, and environmental conservation. Preference may be given to students pursuing degrees in chemistry and biochemistry, but all students are welcome to inquire about research opportunities.