Animals Navigate With Magnetic CellsNature Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
Salmon, turtles and many birds migrate up to thousands of miles at a time, presumably by sensing the Earth’s magnetic field. Now, scientists have identified cells in the nose of trout that respond to magnetism, offering a biological explanation for how animals orient themselves and find their way, even when it’s dark or foggy.
The discovery — and particularly the new method that enabled it — opens up avenues for all sorts of futuristic applications, including miniaturized GPS systems or gene therapies that would restore sight, hearing or smell to people who have lost those senses.
The ability to detect magnetic-sensitive cells in the lab could also help answer questions about whether people are at risk from magnetic fields produced by power lines and other equipment.
“The key point is really the method we established. Some people call it a game-changer,” said Michael Winklhofer, a biogeophysicist at the University of Munich. “Previously, we didn’t have a tool to collect these cells. Now, we can do some serious cell biology on them.”
“There’s no doubt that many animals have a magnetic sense, particularly migratory birds and fish,” he added. “But the problem is, we still don’t know how that works.”
Winklhofer and colleagues chose to study the olfactory tissues of trout based on decade-old research, which showed that magnetic fields affected the electrical activity of nerves that carried information from the fishes’ noses. Instead of grinding up the tissues for analysis, as older methods tended to do, the researchers gently isolated whole cells from the tissues and put them into petri dishes.
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Photo: NOAA Photo Library