Engineering an Artificial Flavoprotein Magnetosensor
Migratory birds use the Earth’s magnetic field as a source of navigational information. This light-dependent magnetic compass is thought to be mediated by cryptochrome proteins in the retina. Upon light activation, electron transfer between the flavin adenine dinucleotide cofactor and tryptophan residues leads to the formation of a spin-correlated radical pair, whose subsequent fate is sensitive to external magnetic fields. To learn more about the functional requirements of this complex chemical compass, we have created a family of simplified, adaptable proteins—maquettes—that contain a single tryptophan residue at different distances from a covalently bound flavin. Despite the complete absence of structural resemblance to the native cryptochrome fold or sequence, the maquettes exhibit a strong magnetic field effect that rivals those observed in the natural proteins in vitro. These novel maquette designs offer unprecedented flexibility to explore the basic requirements for magnetic sensing in a protein environment.