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Bird navigation: Great balls of iron

Date:
April 26, 2013
Source:
Research Institute of Molecular Pathology
Summary:
Every year millions of birds make heroic journeys guided by the earth’s magnetic field. How they detect magnetic fields has puzzled scientists for decades. Today, biologists have added some important pieces to this puzzle.
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Cells from the inner ear of pigeons stained with a chemical that turns iron bright blue in colour.
Credit: IMP

Every year millions of birds make heroic journeys guided by Earth's magnetic field. How they detect magnetic fields has puzzled scientists for decades. Today, the Keays lab at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna has added some important pieces to this puzzle.

Their work, published in Current Biology, reports the discovery of iron balls in sensory neurons. These cells, called hair cells, are found in the ear and are responsible for detecting sound and gravity. Remarkably, each cell has just one iron ball, and it is in the same place in every cell. "It's very exciting. We find these iron balls in every bird, whether it's a pigeon or an ostrich" adds Mattias Lauwers who discovered them "but not in humans." It is an astonishing finding, despite decades of research these conspicuous balls of iron had not been discovered.

This finding builds on previous work by the lab of David Keays who last year showed that iron-rich cells in the beak of pigeons that were believed to be the magnetic sensors, were really just blood cells. "These cells are much better candidates, because they're definitely neurons. But we're a long way off to understanding how magnetic sensing works -- we still don't know what these mysterious iron balls are doing." said Dr Keays. "Who knows, perhaps they are the elusive magnetoreceptors" muses Dr Keays "only time will tell."


Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Research Institute of Molecular Pathology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Mattias Lauwers, Paul Pichler, Nathaniel Bernard Edelman, Guenter Paul Resch, Lyubov Ushakova, Marion Claudia Salzer, Dominik Heyers, Martin Saunders, Jeremy Shaw, David Anthony Keays. An Iron-Rich Organelle in the Cuticular Plate of Avian Hair Cells. Current Biology, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.04.025

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Research Institute of Molecular Pathology. "Bird navigation: Great balls of iron." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 April 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130426073811.htm>.
Research Institute of Molecular Pathology. (2013, April 26). Bird navigation: Great balls of iron. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 3, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130426073811.htm
Research Institute of Molecular Pathology. "Bird navigation: Great balls of iron." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130426073811.htm (accessed September 3, 2015).

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