Researchers and engineers at the University of Texas at Austin have recently made a breakthrough discovery – they’ve identified the neuron that allows worms to sense the Earth’s magnetic field.
Animals have long been known to tap into the Earth’s magnetic field and use it for guidance, as well as sense changes in the weather before they happen, and know when earthquakes are about to start.
Now, a new study published earlier this week, on Wednesday (June 17, 2015), in the journal eLife, looked at worms and revealed that the sensor the animals use to detect magnetic fields is found in their brain and looks like a TV antenna that sits at the end of a neuron. It’s of microscopic proportions, and the researchers have dubbed it “Caenorhabditis elegans”, “C. elegans” for short.
The neuron where the sensor resides is called AFD (Amphid Fingerlike Dendrite), and members of the scientific community already knew that worms use it to sense temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide. It gets its name from its finger-like endings.
In this particular case, worms use it to navigate underground and look for food, but the team from the University of Texas believes that the same structured can be found in the brains of other animals as well, as they most likely share the same neuron.
Jon Pierce-Shimomura, assistant professor of neuroscience in the College of Natural Sciences, who was also member of the research team, gave a statement saying that “Chances are that the same molecules will be used by cuter animals like butterflies and birds. This gives us a first foothold in understanding magnetosensation in other animals”.
He went on to say that the discovery was a very surprising one as worms aren’t known for having sophisticated migration patterns.
The study authors placed worms from the United States, Australia and England into gelatin-filled tubes and studied how they behave. They found that worms with a full belly move upwards, while hungry worms move downwards. However, worms from different countries each aligned themselves to the magnetic fields at the specific angle that corresponded to it in their respective countries.
They tested the worms’ ability to senses the magnetic field by using a coil system to alter it around them and analyze how their behavior changed. They then took testing even further and demonstrated that generally engineered worms that had a broken AFD neuron didn’t align themselves to the magnetic field like the other worms.
Professor Pierce-Shimomura stresses that he and his colleagues have found a novel sensory mechanism that detects the Earth’s magnetic field, and hopes that other researchers will be inspired by their work and use it to look at different species.
Some of the other animals known to use the Earth’s magnetic field for guidance are birds, sea turtles, wolves, and even dogs.
But the findings have many more applications. One of them could be the development of more effective pesticides that better protect crops. Or even more impressive they could be used to simply change the magnetic field in the land beneath the crops.
Image Source: gizmag.com