Decrypting Cryptochrome: Revealing the Molecular Identity of the Photoactivation Reaction

Migrating birds fly thousands of miles or more, often without visual cues and in treacherous winds, yet keep direction. They employ for this purpose, apparently as a powerful navigational tool, the photoreceptor protein cryptochrome to sense the geomagnetic field. The unique biological function of cryptochrome supposedly arises from a photoactivation reaction involving radical pair formation through electron transfer. Radical pairs, indeed, can act as a magnetic compass; however, the cryptochrome photoreaction pathway is not fully resolved yet. To reveal this pathway and underlying photochemical mechanisms, we carried out a combination of quantum chemical calculations and molecular dynamics simulations on plant (Arabidopsis thaliana) cryptochrome. The results demonstrate that after photoexcitation a radical pair forms, becomes stabilized through proton transfer, and decays back to the protein’s resting state on time scales allowing the protein, in principle, to act as a radical pair-based magnetic sensor. We briefly relate our findings on A. thaliana cryptochrome to photoreaction pathways in animal cryptochromes.