Magnetic Navigation by Swimming Bacteria May be Ancient

Feb. 14, 2017

Microbiologist Dennis Bazylinski and a team of international researchers recently published a research article titled “Origin of microbial biomineralization and magnetotaxis during the Archean” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that show magnetic navigation by swimming bacteria may be more ancient than previously thought.

A wide range of organisms sense the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. For some organisms, like magnetotactic bacteria, magnetic particles form inside cells and act like a compass.

Microbes that synthesize minerals, a process known as microbial biomineralization, contributed substantially to the evolution of current planetary environments through numerous important geochemical processes. Despite its geological significance, the origin and evolution of microbial biomineralization remains poorly understood.

Bazylinski’s research team shows genomic evidence that magnetotaxis, the production of magnetosomes (intracellular magnetic crystals in certain bacteria) and the subsequent use of the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation, likely evolved in the Archean (a geologic era 4 to 2.5 billion years ago. It is during this period the earth’s crust cooled and the continents formed, and before there was significant oxygen gas in the atmosphere — far earlier than previously thought.

The team’s finding, the first that show data to support the conclusions, also suggest that magnetotactic bacteria may have been the first organisms to utilize the Earth’s geomagnetic field for navigation, but they may have also been the first biomineralizing organisms on Earth.

Collaborators on the international research team include:

  • Wei Lin, Greig Paterson, Yinzhao Wang, Rixiang Zhu, and Yongxin Pan, Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Qiyun Zhu, J. Craig Venter Institute
  • Evguenia Kopylova and Rob Knight, University of California, San Diego
  • Ying Li, China Agricultural University
  • Joseph Kirschvink, California Institute of Technology and Tokyo Institute of Technology