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Can humans sense the Earth’s magnetism?

June 22, 2011

New research shows that a human retina protein, CRY2, can function as a light-sensitive magnetic sensor when implanted into Drosophila flies, University of Massachusetts Medical School researchers have found.

In many migratory animals, the light-sensitive chemical reactions involving the flavoprotein cryptochrome (CRY) are thought to play an important role in the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Previous studies from the Reppert laboratory have shown that the CRY protein found in these flies can also function as a light-dependent magnetic sensor.

To test whether the human cryptochrome 2 protein (hCRY2) has a similar magnetic sensory ability, the researchers created a transgenic Drosophila model lacking its native cryptochrome protein but expressing hCRY2 instead. They showed that these transgenic flies were able to sense and respond to a magnetic field and in a light-dependent manner.

These findings demonstrate that hCRY2 can function in a magnetic sensing system and may pave the way for further investigation into human magnetoreception.

Ref.: Lauren E. Foley, Robert J. Gegear, Steven M. Reppert, Human cryptochrome exhibits light-dependent magnetosensitivity, Nature Communications, 2011; 2: 356 [DOI: 10.1038/ncomms1364]

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