An up close look at a molecule found in every biological cell on Planet Earth  has revealed a molecular ability to sense magnetic fields; a skill common to almost all animal life on earth, including people.  

During a study of the magnetic-reception capabilities of fruit flies, an international team of researchers discovered the presence of a molecule that is present in all living cells that, when found in a high enough concentration or when working in concert with other molecules that can enable it, can allow the cell to sense magnetic fields. This “magneto-receptive” capability at the cellular level doesn’t automatically allow the host organism to sense magnetic fields, but the ubiquity of the compound means that all living cells, including the individual components that make up the human body, may be able to sense these discrete fields.

“How we sense the external world, from vision, hearing through to touch, taste, and smell, are well understood,” explains neuroscientist Richard Baines from the University of Manchester. “But by contrast, which animals can sense and how they respond to a magnetic field remains unknown. This study has made significant advances in understanding how animals sense and respond to external magnetic fields—a very active and disputed field.”

The running theory behind the mechanism that allows some animals to navigate using magnetic fields is that certain tryptophan residues found within a photoreceptor protein called a cryptochrome (CRY) and another compound called flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) are exposed to blue light they undergo an electron transfer, with the affected electrons—called radicals—swapping their spin states in a quantum exchange.

The alignment of the spin-states of the electrons can be influenced by the direction of magnetic field lines that they are exposed to, including fields as weak as our planet’s geomagnetic field; these spin states then effect the polarity of their CRY and FAD parent molecules, prompting the cell that hosts them to send a signal to the brain regarding the alignment of the magnetic field being sensed.

However, the researchers found that although the crypto-chrome component of this molecular pairing still appears to contribute to a creature’s magneto-reception, it is not a required factor: although the effect is stronger with the presence of CRY, FAD molecules can produce these electron radical pairs on their own, meaning that the mechanism that is used by the cell to sense magnetic fields can be found in the cells of virtually every living organism.

“One of our most striking findings, and one that is at odds with current understanding, is that cells continue to ‘sense’ magnetic fields when only a very small fragment of crypto-chrome is present,” according to Adam Bradlaugh, a neuroscientist with the University of Manchester. “That shows cells can, at least in a laboratory, sense magnetic fields through other ways.”

Although we are unable to consciously sense them, this might explain why human cells, at least in the laboratory, react to magnetic fields, even in cells with low crypto-chrome concentrations.

“This study may ultimately allow us to better appreciate the effects that magnetic field exposure might potentially have on humans,” remarks University of Leicester genetic biologist Ezio Rosato. “Moreover, because FAD and other components of these molecular machines are found in many cells, this new understanding may open new avenues of research into using magnetic fields to manipulate the activation of target genes. That is considered a holy grail as an experimental tool and possibly eventually for clinical use.”

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1 Comment

  1. I would be interested in what current technologies (MRI’s to be specific), do to us. I’d also love to know if my “theory” about us basically having a built in navigation system is true. A lot of people who hike or go off trail just know how to get back on it. It’s fascinating to me.

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