Human Eye May Have Sixth Sense of Magnetic Field Sensor

by Dr Sam Girgis on June 21, 2011

Humans have five known senses and these include hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste.  In other animals, a sixth sense exists among creatures such as monarch butterflies, birds, and sea turtles.  These animals use their ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves during their long migrations over the earth.  Even without the light provided by the sun, these animals would still be able to migrate during the different seasons of the year by using their ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field.  Polynesian navigators and New World explorers have been able to travel uncharted seas for thousands of miles, and the ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field was once thought to be present in humans.  After years of research though, this ability was thought to be lacking in humans.  Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, lead by Dr. Steven Reppert, have provided evidence that the ability to sense magnetism may be present in humans.  The results of their research are published in today’s Nature Communications.  The researchers have previously studied the ability of the monarch butterfly to navigate and migrate using the earth’s electromagnetic field.  They have shown that the monarch butterfly uses a light sensitive protein called a cryptochrome to detect the earth’s magnetic field and use it for migration.  The research group has also showed that when the cryptochrome from laboratory Drosophila flies is knocked out, they are no longer able to sense the earth’s magnetic field.  Replacing the absent crytochrome of the Drosophila flies with one from the monarch butterfly restored the ability of the flies to sense the earth’s magnetism.  It was discovered that humans have a light sensitive protein very similar to these cryptochromes.  The researchers genetically inserted the human version of the cryptochrome protein into the Drosophila flies that were lacking it and were able to show that this restored the ability to sense magnetism.  In addition, the human cryptochrome protein is very highly expressed in the retina of the human eye.  This suggests that this protein may serve a similar function in humans… that of detecting the earth’s magnetic field.  If the ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field exists in monarch butterflies, birds, and sea turtles, why would this sense have been lost in humans?  More research needs to be done to elucidate the exact function of this protein in humans.  The researchers wrote, “Humans are widely assumed not to have a magnetic sense… Here we show using a transgenic approach, that human [cryptochrome] can function as a magnetosensor in the magnetoreception system of Drosophila and that it does so in a light-dependent manner. Thus, human [cryptochrome] has the molecular capability to function as a light-sensitive magnetosensor, and this finding may lead to a renewed interest in human magnetoreception”.

Could it be possible that humans really do have a hidden ability to sense and control magnetism similar to that of X-Men’s Magneto?

Reference:

Lauren E. Foley et al. “Human cryptochrome exhibits light-dependent magnetosensitivityNature Communications June 21, 2011

Photo Credit: Marvel Comics/ Jim Lee

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Hany S. Girgis June 22, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Cool story! As a geneticist, I would have suspected that the cryptochrome gene in humans is vestigial (like leg bones in whales) and non-functional. It is amazing that the human version is functional in the fruit fly. From an evolutionary perspective, it is like taking a engine part out of a modern BMW, sticking it a Model T Ford, and having it work!

Proteins are known to play multiple roles in a cell. Since humans do not have magnetoreception, and because the human protein is highly expressed in the retina and is functional when placed in the fruit fly, I suspect this protein serves an important function in humans that allowed it to remain preserved over millions of years of evolution. Additional functions of the cryptochrome protein have yet to be discovered. Further experimentation is needed to determine whether humans do indeed have hidden superhero powers.

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Chris Bergstrom June 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm

This is so sweet.

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