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BBC: Human eye protein senses Earth's magnetism


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Human eye protein senses Earth's magnetism

A light-sensitive protein in the human eye has been shown to act as a "compass" in a magnetic field, when it is present in flies' eyes.

The study in Nature Communications showed that without their natural "magnetoreception" protein, the flies did not respond to a magnetic field - but replacing the protein with the human version restored the ability.

Despite much controversy, no conclusive evidence exists that humans can sense the Earth's magnetic field, and the find may revive interest in the idea.

Although humans, like migratory birds, are known to have cryptochrome in their eyes, the idea of human magnetoreception has remained largely unexplored since pioneering experiments by Robin Baker of the University of Manchester in the 1980s.

Dr Baker used a long series of experiments on thousands of volunteers that suggested humans could indirectly sense magnetic fields, though he never definitively identified the mechanism. In subsequent years, several groups attempted to repeat those experiments, claiming opposing results.

Time, flies

At the heart of the current study is a molecule called cryptochrome - an ancient protein present, in one of its two major forms, in every animal on Earth.

The protein is implicated in the regulation of circadian rhythms - the "body clocks" of humans and other animals - and in the navigational skills of several species including migratory birds, monarch butterflies, and the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.

The exact mechanism behind animals' navigational abilities remains a mystery, however, and an active area of research.

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