Skip to main content
Move the World.
magnetoreception

Lead Image © Earth Theater / Adobe Stock

Magnetoreception — the ability of some animals to sense magnetic fields — is one of those remarkable abilities that is so alien to us that it's difficult to grasp.

It's not just stoners watching the Discovery Channel and fans of the X-Men who marvel at magnetoreception, either. Science has had a devil of a time explaining just how animals — including migratory birds, sea turtles, eels, and bats — can sense the Earth's magnetic field.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have taken a big step towards figuring it out: they've observed, for the first time, living cells reacting to magnetic fields, New Atlas reports.

Their study, published in PNAS, provides evidence supporting the "radical pair mechanism" theory of magnetoreception. (As opposed to the theory that suggests a relationship with magnetic-sensing bacteria.)

As New Atlas explains, when certain molecules are excited by light, their electrons can jump to neighboring molecules, creating a radical pair — two molecules with a single electron each. 

The spin rate of those electrons changes the chemical reactions of the molecules. Because magnetic fields can alter an electron's spin rate, the theory goes, they may be causing chemical changes in an animal's cells that alter its behavior — magnetoreception. 

Scientists believe the most likely culprits for radicalization to be a class of proteins called cryptochromes. 

Tokyo researchers Noboru Ikeya and Jonathan R. Woodward turned their attention to the flavin molecules in HeLa cells — a human cell line commonly used for research (originating in cervical cancer cells in Henrietta Lacks). Per New Atlas, flavin molecules are a type of cryptochrome that glow when exposed to fluorescent light.

Ikeya and Woodward irradiated the HeLa cells with fluorescent light, causing the flavin molecules to glow, then swept a magnetic field over the cells at four second intervals. When exposed to the field, the cell's fluorescence dropped 3.5%; evidence, the researchers propose, of the kind of chemical reaction you'd see in a radical pair. 

Science has had a devil of a time explaining just how animals — including migratory birds, sea turtles, eels, and bats — can sense the Earth’s magnetic field.

"We've not modified or added anything to these cells," Woodward told New Atlas. "We think we have extremely strong evidence that we've observed a purely quantum mechanical process affecting chemical activity at the cellular level."

It's important to note the researchers used magnets roughly equivalent in strength to the kind holding wedding invitations on your fridge — much stronger than the Earth's background magnetic field. But weaker fields actually affect electron spin rate more — more support for the theory that magnetoreception stems from the radical pair mechanism.

This is a first-of-its-kind observation; it's exciting, but it's still too soon to say we're ... positive these chemical changes are the cause of magnetoreception.

Up Next

Planet Earth
This Magnetic Sponge May Be the Key to Oil Spill Cleanup
Oil spill cleanup
Planet Earth
This Magnetic Sponge May Be the Key to Oil Spill Cleanup
A new magnetic sponge makes the job of oil spill cleanup safer for the environment.

A new magnetic sponge makes the job of oil spill cleanup safer for the environment.

Sustainability
This Laundry Detergent Is Made from Recycled Carbon
recycled carbon laundry detergent
Sustainability
This Laundry Detergent Is Made from Recycled Carbon
Consumer goods company Unilever is now selling a laundry detergent that’s made using recycled carbon instead of traditional fossil fuels.

Consumer goods company Unilever is now selling a laundry detergent that’s made using recycled carbon instead of traditional fossil fuels.

Climate Crisis
Can Weather Modification Save Us From Megadroughts?
weather modification
Climate Crisis
Can Weather Modification Save Us From Megadroughts?
Scientists predict that the western U.S. is entering the most severe "megadrought" on record. One weather modification solution is cloud seeding.

Scientists predict that the western U.S. is entering the most severe "megadrought" on record. One weather modification solution is cloud seeding.

Medical Innovation
Symptoms of Parkinson's Are the Only Way to Diagnose It. But Not for Long.
symptoms of parkinsons
Medical Innovation
Symptoms of Parkinson's Are the Only Way to Diagnose It. But Not for Long.
Researchers discovered a new way to diagnose and track Parkinson's disease progression — even before the first symptoms of Parkinson's appear.

Researchers discovered a new way to diagnose and track Parkinson's disease progression — even before the first symptoms of Parkinson's appear.

Medical Innovation
The Race To Get Artificial Blood Into Patients’ Veins
Artificial Blood
Medical Innovation
The Race To Get Artificial Blood Into Patients’ Veins
Artificial blood could help address blood shortages while overcoming the limitations of donated blood, which has a relatively short shelf life.

Artificial blood could help address blood shortages while overcoming the limitations of donated blood, which has a relatively short shelf life.

Music
This Algorithm Just Generated 68 Billion Unique Melodies
melodies
Music
This Algorithm Just Generated 68 Billion Unique Melodies
Two musicians built an algorithm that could write every melody in the popular music range — and then released the melodies into the public domain.

Two musicians built an algorithm that could write every melody in the popular music range — and then released the melodies into the public domain.

Superhuman
Wearable Robotic Suits Could Be Coming to a Store Near You
Wearable Robotic Suits Could Be Coming to a Store Near You
Superhuman
Wearable Robotic Suits Could Be Coming to a Store Near You
What can lift 500 pounds in each hand, walk for miles and miles with a heavy load, or leap over obstacles in a single bound? Humans - with the help of wearable robotics.

What can lift 500 pounds in each hand, walk for miles and miles with a heavy load, or leap over obstacles in a single bound? Humans - with the help of wearable robotics. Alan Asbeck anticipates in less than a decade, everyone will have seen somebody donned in a robot suit. “I've wished I had one when moving from house to house or when shoveling snow,” he said. Asbeck is a real-life...

INTEL
Bringing Virtual Reality to Brain Surgery
Bringing Virtual Reality to Brain Surgery
Watch Now
INTEL
Bringing Virtual Reality to Brain Surgery
Virtual reality is helping surgeons and patients prepare for complicated, life-saving surgeries in ways never before possible.
Watch Now

Brain surgery is never easy -- for the doctor or the patient. Now, virtual reality is changing the game. Surgical Theater has created a revolutionary new tool, powered by Intel technology, that allows surgeons and patients to prepare for complicated new surgeries in ways never before possible. Surgeons have previously had to rely on 2D images and their imagination to visualize a surgery, but now they are able to use 3D, VR...

The New Space Race
Why the U.S. Government Treated Satellites and Machine Guns as the Same for 15 Years
Why the U.S. Government Treated Satellites and Machine Guns as the Same for 15 Years
The New Space Race
Why the U.S. Government Treated Satellites and Machine Guns as the Same for 15 Years
Regulations forced companies that planned to sell satellites to other countries to register, in effect, as arms...
By Jeff Foust

Regulations forced companies that planned to sell satellites to other countries to register, in effect, as arms dealers.