Biological Compass

Scientists over at Peking University have identified the location of the animal magnetic sense that tells birds, worms, whales, and wolves where north is. It was found in tiny clumps of iron-binding protein called MagR, which appear to align with the planet’s geomagnetic field lines, similar to that of a compass. These proteins are able to influence the nervous system to signal the rest of the body as to its location and helps it navigate its surroundings.

In an interview with The Guardian, lead researcher Can Xie explains the phenomenon, hypothesizing that “any disturbance in this alignment may be captured by connected cellular machinery, which would channel information to the downstream neural system, forming the animal’s magnetic sense.”

Magnetic Properties

The study conducted by Xie’s team were done on the fruit fly genome and they found the same protein clusters in monarch butterflies and pigeons. These structures have also been found in the cells of mole rats, minke whales, and humans.

Xie says that once isolated, these proteins exhibited strange behavior, telling the New Scientist that “In the lab, the proteins snapped into alignment in response to a magnetic field. They were so strongly magnetic that they flew up and stuck to the researchers’ tools, which contained iron. So the team had to use custom tools made of plastic.”


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