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Several migratory animal species use the magnetic field of the earth to navigate during migration. In particular, this includes birds which migrate nocturnally, some species of fish, and the North American monarch butterfly. These species are less able to use visual navigation. However, there is debate about the mechanism by which this internal compass works.


The two leading theories of magnetoreception can be categorised as a magnetite-based system which has been found to be involved most significantly in bacteria.The second, more complex proposed mechanism suggests that select biological molecules can generate radical pairs which are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field [1]. Suggested by Thorsten Ritz et al. [2], this was posited as a theoretical model that has since been inspiration for several in vivo studies.

Behavioural experiments by Wolfgang and Roswitha Wiltschko in the European robin model seems to complement this proposed mechanism of the radical pair mechanism of the avian compass [3]. However, though theoretically compelling, this mechanism still lacks the conclusive empirical biological evidence of the fundamental understanding of the mechanism behind the avian compass.

Current projects

Project description

Cryptochrome, the putative magnetosensor molecule, has been studied in the fields of chronobiology and circadian rhythmicity, but recently gained popularity for its blue-light receptor function and subsequent production of a radical pair. At the Leverhulme Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre, Edeline will be investigating the role of cryptochrome in magnetoreception and investigating the mechanism and interactions through which cryptochrome conveys its magnetosensor function and if this differs between species-specific variants of the protein via in vivo and in vitro characterisation.

Future scope may lead to the use of cryptochrome as a potential (magneto-)optogenetic tool in biotechnology applications.

Postgraduate researcher


Research team

University of Surrey

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Ed D'Souza

Postgraduate Research Student

Jose Jimenez profile image

Dr Jose Jimenez

Senior Lecturer in Synthetic Biology

External institutions

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Dr Alex Jones

Principal Research Scientist - National Physical Laboratory

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Dr Daniel Kattnig

Senior Lecturer - University of Exeter

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Professor Alexandra Olaya-Castro

Professor of Physics - University College London


[1] Hore PJ, Mouritsen H. The radical-pair mechanism of magnetoreception. Annual review of biophysics. 2016 Jul 5;45:299-344.

[2] Ritz T, Adem S, Schulten K. A model for photoreceptor-based magnetoreception in birds. Biophysical journal. 2000 Feb 1;78(2):707-18.

[3] Ritz T, Wiltschko R, Hore PJ, Rodgers CT, Stapput K, Thalau P, Timmel CR, Wiltschko W. Magnetic compass of birds is based on a molecule with optimal directional sensitivity. Biophysical journal. 2009 Apr 22;96(8):3451-7.

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Leverhulme Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre (QB-DTC)
Robert Boyle (AZ) Building
University of Surrey