Magnetic Cells in Trout May be Key to Animals' Internal Compass

By Max Eddy on August 1, 2012 9:56 PM EDT

Trout
Scientists have found highly magnetized cells in trout which might help them find their way around. (Photo: Flickr / The Wild Center)

There have been a number of theories why migratory animals are able to find their way around. However, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science might offer an intriguing clue. In it, scientists report how they identified magnetized cells in the snouts of trout.

Researchers from the Ludwig Maximilians University Munich led by Michael Winklhofer looked at trout because, like their salmon cousins, these fish are excellent navigators. The researchers write that previous work had found iron-rich cells in various areas of the fish, and they chose to focus their work on the olfactory region.

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To start, the researchers broke down the olfactory nerve structures until they had nothing but loose cells. They then placed about 10,000 cells under a microscope with a spinning magnet beneath the sample. Using this, they were able to watch for cells whose motion responded to the magnet.

Though they only found one to four cells in each animal which responded to the magnet, the ones they did find were far more strongly polarized than previously expected. They write that these cells likely contain single-domain magnetite crystals that are tightly bound to the cell. So much so that when the shifting magnetic particles could be sensed by the trout's brain.

The researchers believe that their work clearly indicates that these cells could function as magnetoreceptors, which could make up a kind of biological compass within the trout. Obviously, further work will be necessary to identify similar cells in other animals and determine how they function. However, Winklhofer and his colleagues may be one step closer to understanding just how animals can find their way.

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