It would be an ugly experience to see our world through the eyes of a migratory bird. Something about their visual system allows them to ‘see’ our planet’s magnetic field, a clever trick of quantum physics and biochemistry that helps them find vast distances.
Now, for the first time, scientists at the University of Tokyo have observed first-hand the fantasy behind the genius for sensing the direction of the Earth’s poles, ‘and many other creatures’.
Importantly, this is evidence that quantum physics directly affects biochemical reactions in cells – something we have long hypothesized, but have not seen in action before.
Using a microscope made by a tailor sensitive to the brightness of dim light, the team observed the culture of human cells with specific light-sensitive materials to dynamically respond to changes in the magnetic field.
What is to be gained with the change observed by the researchers in the lab, what would be expected if a peculiar quantum effect, was responsible for the luminous reaction.
“We haven’t made any changes to these cells or added anything to them,” says biophysicist Jonathan Woodward.
“We think we have very strong evidence that we have observed a complete quantum mechanical process affecting chemical activity at the cellular level.”
So how are cells, especially human cells, able to respond to magnetic fields?
While there are many hypotheses out there, many researchers believe that the potential is due to a unique quantum reaction associated with photoreceptors called cryptochroms.
Syruptochromes are found in cells of many species and are involved in regulating circadian rhythms. In migratory birds, dogs and other species, they are associated with a mysterious ability to understand the magnetic field.
In fact, while most of us cannot see the magnetic field, our own cells certainly have cryptochrome. And there is evidence that even though it is not conscious, humans are actually able to detect the earth’s magnetism.
To see the reaction inside the syruptochrome in action, the researchers bathed the culture of human cells containing the cryptochrome in blue light, causing them to become weakly fluorescent. As they glowed, the team repeatedly rotated magnetic fields of different frequencies over the cells.
They found that each time a magnetic field was applied to the cells, their fluorescent cent .. per cent decreased – which was enough to show a direct reaction.
So how can a magnetic field affect a photoreceptor?
It all comes down to something called spin – the natural property of electrons.
We already know that spin is significantly influenced by magnetic fields. Properly arrange electrons around an atom, and gather enough of them in one place and the resulting material can be moved using anything other than a weak magnetic field around our planet.
All this is fine and good if you want to make a needle for a navigational compass. But physicists had to think small because there were no clear signs of magnetically-sensitive parts of the material on the pigeon’s skull.
In 1975, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, Klaus Schulten, developed a theory on how magnetic fields can influence chemical reactions.
It contains some basic pairings.
The radical variety in the garden is an electron in the outer shell of an atom that is not in partnership with another electron.
Sometimes these bachelor electrons can adopt a wingman in another atom to form a radical pair. Both remain unexpected but thanks to the shared history they are considered trapped, which means that their spins mean that no matter how far away they are, their release will be consistent.
This correlation cannot be explained by ongoing physical connections, so it is purely quantum activity, even Albert Einstein is considered ‘spooky’.
In the tumult of living cells, their entanglement will be transient. But even these briefly interconnected spins will last too long to make a gutle difference in the way their respective parent molecules behave.
In this experiment, the corresponding immersion in fluorescence, as the magnetic field passes over the cells, indicates that the radical pair’s pay generation was affected.
An interesting result of the research could be how even weak magnetic fields can indirectly affect other biological processes. While evidence of magnetism affecting human health is weak, similar experiments may prove to be another way to investigate.
“The good thing about this research is that the relationship between the spin of two individual electrons can have a big impact on biology,” says Woodward.
Of course birds are not the only animals that depend on our magnet osp sphere for direction. Fish, worms, insects and some mammal species are also equipped for it. We humans can also be affected by the Earth’s rotating magnetic field.
The evolution of this ability can lead to the distribution of different types of actions based on different physics.
The fact that there is evidence that at least one of them combines the peculiarities of the quantum world with the behavior of living things is enough to make us wonder what other bits of biology arise from the ugly depressions of basic physics.
This research was published P.N.A.S..