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Biological sensing of small field differences by magnetically sensitive chemical reactions
Weaver JC, Vaughan TE, Astumian RD
Nature 405: 707-709, 8 June 2000

There is evidence that animals can detect small changes in the Earth's magnetic field by two distinct mechanisms, one using the mineral magnetite as the primary sensor and one using magnetically sensitive chemical reactions. Magnetite responds by physically twisting, or even reorienting the whole organism in the case of some bacteria, but the magnetic dipoles of individual molecules are too small to respond in the same way. Here we assess whether reactions whose rates are affected by the orientation of reactants in magnetic fields could form the basis of a biological compass. We use a general model, incorporating biological components and design criteria, to calculate realistic constraints for such a compass. This model compares a chemical signal produced owing to magnetic field effects with stochastic noise and with changes due to physiological temperature variation. Our analysis shows that a chemically based biological compass is feasible with its size, for any given detection limit, being dependent on the magnetic sensitivity of the rate constant of the chemical reaction.

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