A couple of nights ago I went to see X-Men: First Class with my husband and my daughter, and I marvelled at Magneto’s ability to generate and control magnetism. Although Magneto would sneer at the possibility that humans, who are much less evolved than mutants, can sense magnetic fields, new research suggests that it’s possible we have this ability… but don’t try to bend metal with your thoughts just yet.
Lauren Foley, a scientist at the University of Massachussetts Medical School, has discovered that the human protein CRY2—or cryptochrome 2—can double as a magnetic sensor—at least when it’s given to Drosophila flies. Cryptochrome is found in many life forms and is abundant in the retina of birds, allowing them to navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. Humans have two cryptochromes, CRY1 and CRY2, which help to control our body’s rhythms or biological clocks. CRY2 is also heavily active in the human retina and can sense light—Foley’s research found that it was sensitive to blue light.
The Drosophila fly can sense magnetic fields using cryptochrome; however, mutant flies that don’t have the CRY gene that makes the cryptochrome protein lose this ability. In Foley’s study, they gave the mutant flies the human version of CRY2 and discovered that the flies were then able to sense magnetic fields just like the regular flies with the CRY gene—but only when they were bathed in blue colour.
Foley’s studies show that human cryptochrome can act as a magnetic sensor—at least with blue light and in Drosophila flies. But this simple experiment does not prove that humans can sense magnetic fields. To sense magnetic fields one needs not only a protein like cryptochrome but also a process or apparatus that picks up the changes in the protein and communicates them to the brain.
Magnetoreception is a difficult animal sense to study and, in addition, we don’t really know what it would be used for in humans. Scientists don’t believe the idea of an internal compass for migration applies to humans, especially since lost humans tend to walk in circles when landmarks are not available.
It is quite possible that magnetoreception in humans has a completely different purpose, such as subtle communication in the form of a sixth sense that aided human survival when we lived amongst constant danger. Maybe magnetoreception causes the hair on our neck to raise and makes our entire body tingle when we’re in danger. I’ll be following with interest these and future studies concerning light receptors and magnetic sensors… and following Magneto’s next move to learn a few techniques, just in case.
Sources and more information:
(Original study that prompted the many articles.) Foley, Lauren E., Gegear, Robert J. & Reppert, Steven M. “Human cryptochrome exhibits light-dependent magnetosensitivity.” Nature Communications. Volume 2. Article number 356. doi:10.1038/ncomms1364. Published June 21, 2011. Accessed July 2, 2011. http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v2/n6/full/ncomms1364.html
Discover Magazine online. “Humans have a magnetic sensor in our eyes, but can we detect magnetic fields?” By Ed Yong. Published June 21st, 2011. Accessed July 2, 2011. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/06/21/humans-have-a-magnetic-sensor-in-our-eyes-but-can-we-see-magnetic-fields/
Science News online. “Human Magnetism.” By Science News staff. Published June 26th, 2011. Accessed July 1, 2011. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/331882/title/News_in_Brief_MoleculesMatter_%2B_Energy
Wired Science online. “Humans Could Have Geomagnetic Sight.” By Brandon Keim. Published June 21, 2011. Accessed July 2, 2011. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/06/geomagnetic-vision/
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Touchy Subjects is owned and operated by Brenda Piquette. All information on the Touchy Subjects blog is copyright Brenda Piquette 2010 / 2011. Note: This information is provided for entertainment purposes only and should be verified for accuracy.