eLife digest | Physical limits to magnetogenetics

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Physical limits to magnetogenetics

eLife digest

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California Institute of Technology, United States

How biological systems interact with magnetic fields is of great interest both from a basic science perspective and for technological applications. Certain animal species can sense the Earth’s magnetic field for the purposes of navigation. How that compass sense works is perhaps the last true mystery of sensory biology. If we knew how the magnetic field affects the activity of nerve cells, we could harness that mechanism to create new biomedical tools. One technological goal is to genetically engineer specific cells in the brain or elsewhere so their activity can be controlled using an external magnet. This dream has been called “magnetogenetics”.

In recent months a string of reports claimed to have solved both the scientific and the technological challenges of magnetogenetics. They all involved the discovery or the engineering of protein molecules that are sensitive to magnetic fields. Markus Meister has now checked whether those claims were consistent with well-established physical laws.

For each case, Meister calculated how strongly the protein in question would link magnetic fields to cellular activity. The results show that the predicted effects are too weak to account for the reported measurements by huge margins: between five and ten orders of magnitude. It therefore appears that none of these reports have hit on a solution to magnetogenetics.

All of the proposed proteins use iron atoms to couple to the magnetic field, but Meister concludes that these proteins contain far too few iron atoms. How safe is that conclusion? There has been enormous technological interest in making tiny magnets; for example, to design the ever-denser data storage drives inside computers. Hence the magnetism of small clusters of atoms is exceedingly well understood. If any of the biological reports of magnetogenetics turned out correct, they would force a revolutionary rethinking of basic physics.

With the recognition that magnetogenetics remains unsolved, and that different approaches are needed, Meister hopes that other investigators will feel motivated to continue innovating in this area.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.17210.002