Scientists Identify Proteins That Align with Magnetic Fields

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Our planet and its inhabitants are shaped by countless forces, many of which we cannot see. We’ve gotten pretty good at understanding and even harnessing some of these phenomena. But when it comes to magnetism, there’s a lot we still don’t know.

For example: do the Earth’s magnetic fields affect animal behavior? And if so, how?

Call it literal animal magnetism. Magnetosensing, or the ability to detect and respond to magnetic fields, is still largely a black box to us. For years, scientists didn’t believe it existed. But that’s changing. Studies have shown that species as diverse as lobsters, naked mole rats, butterflies, bacteria, and birds all use magnetic information to navigate. Other animals may position their bodies or their nests along geomagnetic lines.

Whether or not magnetosensing exists in humans is a controversial subject. But scientists have recently discovered a protein complex that aligns itself with magnetic fields. They originally found the magnetic complex in fruit flies, but tests revealed its presence in a handful of other species—including humans.

The study, which was published today in Nature Materials, combined computer modeling with biological tests.

The researchers began by screening the fruit fly genome for proteins that might react to magnetic force. They found a combo. Scientists were already aware of the protein Cryptochrome, nicknamed Cry, which can detect magnetic fields. When Cry coupled with a previously unknown protein the researchers called MagR, the compound would align itself along magnetic fields.

The next step was to see if the substance exists in any other species. To make a long story short: It does. The scientists found evidence of the MagR/Cry complex in pigeons. They also determined that it can form in butterflies, rats, whales, pigeons, and, yes, humans.

How do our bodies use this information? That remains to be seen. The researchers describe this research as “a step towards fully uncovering the molecular mechanism of animal navigation and magnetoreception.”