A Compass in the Dark
A research team headed by scientists of Helmholtz Zentrum München and the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has published a new model in ‘Nature Communications’ which allows studying magnetoreception. Analyzing zebrafish and medaka fish allowed the researchers to measure brain activity during magnetic stimulation and to show that the sense also works in darkness.
Magnetoreception refers to the ability of some animals to sense Earth’s magnetic field and make use of it for navigation. Still, the underlying mechanisms remain unknown. “To solve this question might not only satisfy neuroscientific curiosity but also lead to new molecular methods”, said Prof. Dr. Gil Gregor Westmeyer. He is the principal investigator of the study at the interface of neuroscience and molecular imaging, and his team is affiliated both with Helmholtz Zentrum München and TUM. “Reverse-engineering the magnetoreceptor may lead to synthetic biology techniques for remotely controlling molecular processes with magnetic fields.” To reach this goal, Westmeyer and his team wanted to establish a model to study magnetoreception.
The scientists focused their work on zebrafish, and distally related medaka fish because they are vertebrate animals that can be genetically addressed and analyzed well under the microscope.* The researchers found that adult fish of both species change their swimming trajectories in response to a change in the direction of the Earth magnetic field that was experimentally introduced while carefully controlling for confounding variables. Interestingly, this effect also occurred in the absence of visible light such that a photon-independent mechanism has to be assumed.
„In this model, we can now look for previously unidentified magnetoreceptor cells, which our behavioral experiments predicted would involve magnetic material“, said co-first author Ahne Myklatun, a graduate student in the Westmeyer laboratory.
In addition, the researchers were able to show a similar magnetic field-dependent effect in young fish larvae. „This is a decisive advantage because in their early developmental stages, the fish are still almost transparent“, said Antonella Lauri, a postdoctoral fellow and joint lead author. „Thus, we can use imaging techniques to study the brain of the fish during behavioral runs with changing magnetic fields.” The scientists were already able to identify a candidate region in the brain – a track that could now lead to the unknown magnetic receptor cells.
Gil Gregor Westmeyer, principal investigator on this ERC-funded study, concludes: „Magnetoreception is one of the few senses whose mechanism is not understood. The kind of multidisciplinary work we present here will ultimately lead to an understanding of the biophysical mechanism of magnetoreception and its underlying neuronal computation. These findings could also offer interesting approaches to engineer biological systems for the remote control of molecular processes with magnetic fields.”
* Recently, Westmeyer and his team have successfully developed a new microscope. The so-called NeuBtracker (NeuBtracker.org) is an open source microscope that allows observing neuronal activities in zebrafish without perturbing their behavior.
In the long term, the team would like to use the findings to develop novel techniques involving magnetogenetics, an innovative research program that could probably also play a role in the new Helmholtz Pioneer Campus (HPC). Here, researchers from various disciplines want to work together on new solutions to medical needs. „For example, in the diabetes context, it would be conceivable to develop cells that are induced by a magnetic impulse to produce insulin,“ says Westmeyer.
Prof. Dr. Gil Gregor Westmeyer is affiliated with the Institutes for Biological and Medical Imaging (IBMI) and Developmental Genetics (IDG) at Helmholtz Zentrum München. He is professor of molecular imaging at the Nuclear Medicine Department and a member of the Munich School of Bioengineering (MSB) of the Technical University of Munich (TUM). The study was conducted in close cooperation with scientists at the University of Oldenburg, the University of Hohenheim and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU).
Myklatun, A. & Lauri, A. et al. (2018): Zebrafish and medaka offer insights into the neurobehavioral correlates of vertebrate magnetoreception. Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-03090-6
The Helmholtz Zentrum München, the German Research Center for Environmental Health, pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors , and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich and has about 2,300 staff members. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 18 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members.
The Institute for Biological and Medical Imaging (IBMI) conducts research into in vivo imaging technologies for the biosciences. It develops systems, theories and methods of imaging and image reconstruction as well as animal models to test new technologies at the biological, preclinical and clinical level. The aim is to provide innovative tools for biomedical laboratories, for diagnosis and the therapeutic monitoring of human diseases.
Rising life expectancy is causing an increase in age-related, but also sociological and environmental, influences on the genes. The Institute of Developmental Genetics (IDG) examines these changes in genetic material. In the Mouse Genetics group, genetic animal models are developed to investigate various diseases. These models are analyzed in the Disease Modelling research group to identify gene functions and cell processes and evaluate the influence of the environment and aging processes. The group focuses on the examination of neurological and psychiatric diseases.
Technical University of Munich (TUM) is one of Europe’s leading research universities, with more than 500 professors, around 10,000 academic and non-academic staff, and 40,000 students. Its focus areas are the engineering sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and medicine, combined with economic and social sciences. TUM acts as an entrepreneurial university that promotes talents and creates value for society. In that, it profits from having strong partners in science and industry. It is represented worldwide with a campus in Singapore as well as offices in Beijing, Brussels, Cairo, Mumbai, San Francisco, and São Paulo. Nobel Prize winners and inventors such as Rudolf Diesel, Carl von Linde, and Rudolf Mößbauer have done research at TUM. In 2006 and 2012 it won recognition as a German „Excellence University.“ In international rankings, TUM regularly places among the best universities in Germany.
Contact for the media:
Department of Communication, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg – Tel. +49 89 3187 2238 – Fax: +49 89 3187 3324 – E-mail:
Scientific Contact at Helmholtz Zentrum München:
Prof. Dr. Gil Westmeyer, Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health, Institute for Biological and Medical Imaging, Ingolstädter Landstr. 1, 85764 Neuherberg – Tel. +49 89 3187 2123, E-mail: