Discovery of long-sought biological compass claimed

By David Cyranoski | November 16, 2015

Protein complex offers explanation for how animals sense Earth’s magnetic pull.

Beluga whales are among the species that are thought to use Earth’s weak magnetic field for navigation.

In the cells of fruit flies, Chinese scientists say that they have found a biological compass needle: a rod-shaped complex of proteins that can align with Earth’s weak magnetic field.

The biocompass — whose constituent proteins exist in related forms in other species, including humans — could explain a long-standing puzzle: how animals such as birds and insects sense magnetism. It might also become an invaluable tool for using magnetic fields to control cells, report researchers led by biophysicist Xie Can at Peking University in Beijing, in a paper published on 16 November in Nature Materials (S. Qin et al. Nature Mater., 2015).

“It’s an extraordinary paper,” says Peter Hore, a biochemist at the University of Oxford, UK. But Xie’s team has not shown that the complex actually behaves as a biocompass inside living cells, nor explained exactly how it senses magnetism. “It’s either a very important paper or totally wrong. I strongly suspect the latter,” says David Keays, a neuroscientist who studies magnetoreception at the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna.

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Source: Discovery of long-sought biological compass claimed : Nature News & Comment