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Professor Christine Cardin: DNA structure and the 'light-switch' effect – University of Reading

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    Read about Professor Christine Cardin's glowing DNA research

Professor Christine Cardin: DNA structure and the 'light-switch' effect

christine cardin smallProfessor Christine Cardin and her colleagues work with molecules that have a similar property to glow-in-the-dark, except instead they glow when binding to DNA. Christine and her student James Hall - who is now a Pharmaceutical Chemistry lecturer at the University - are the world leaders in the structural study of these compounds bound to DNA.

"The structure of DNA really interests me, and how compounds bind to DNA - particularly those which are important in drug discovery. The molecules may have important therapeutic uses, or they may be useful for diagnostics of cancer, so people were trying to develop new ones, but nobody knew how they bound to DNA. The beauty of the X-ray crystallography technique is that it shows you exactly what your molecule looks like. The minute I saw that, I loved it, and was hooked on it."

This film shows the symmetrical intercalation of a ruthenium 'light-switch' complex


Chemistry undergraduates and postgraduates alike are integral to Christine's research.

"Students are very, very important to my research. In 2013, my research group published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society - and the first four authors listed are all Reading students who were working with me. I like to share this example with my current students to show them what you can achieve even when you're an undergraduate - you can get your name on a paper in a prestigious journal. Most of my really important work has been done with students."


As a chemistry student at Reading, you'll get the opportunity to visit Diamond Light Source. The synchrotron accelerates electrons up to very high speeds, producing focused beams of light that are around 100 billion times brighter than a standard hospital X-ray machine or 10 billion times brighter than the sun. We can use the light to study a wide range of chemical and biological structures at the atomic and nanoscale.

"Working with Diamond Light Source is inspirational. Everybody you take there gets very excited by the terrific sense of the potential at what you could do on an enormously powerful instrument like that. When you go there, you're visiting a very large facility and you're a small drop in a large scientific ocean. We've taken many student groups there - they all love to go, and of course we've got some really exciting scientific results out of it. These visits are very good for their theses, and can even help them get a job after graduation. I think it looks really good on students' CVs, and it's excellent for them to have exposure to something on this scale."

Christine and her colleagues also work closely with the Central Laser Facility.

With this equipment we can see the first step in DNA damage, caused by some compounds from the same class. As the electrons move around, they can be followed on timescales as short as picoseconds. The neat thing is to relate the static structure from X-rays to these very fast processes. Both Diamond Light Source and the Central Laser Facility are located just 30 minutes from the University, on the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory site in Oxfordshire.


Christine has been an X-ray crystallographer for many years, with multiple longstanding collaborations. In 2016, she won the Royal Society of Chemistry's Rita and John Cornforth Award, a prestigious award for collaboration between chemistry and biology. Christine's research is in the area of nucleic acid structure, with a focus on the precise details of small molecule interactions.

Christine is also an Athena SWAN representative for the Department, which involves supporting women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Christine represents women in the Department and provides mentoring.

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