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Volume 594 Issue 7864, 24 June 2021

Quantum compass

Many creatures use Earth’s magnetic field to help them navigate, but the exact nature of this internal compass has remained elusive. In this week’s issue, scientists from the Universities of Oxford and Oldenburg reveal the quantum properties of a protein that makes it a strong contender for the compass in migratory songbirds. The researchers examined the protein cryptochrome (ErCRY4), which is found in the retina of migratory European robins (Erithacus rubecula), and found that it could have the required level of magnetic sensitivity to act as a light-dependent compass. They identified that in vitro ErCRY4 undergoes a light-driven chemical reaction that triggers quantum effects that might enable sensing of magnetic signals. The team also found that the molecule in robins has greater magnetic sensitivity than the equivalent protein in non-migratory pigeons and chickens, leading them to conclude that it is likely to be a key component in the way robins navigate.

Cover image: Corinna Langebrake and Ilia Solov’yov

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