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Ultrastructure, morphology and organization of biogenic magnetite from sockeye salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka: implications for magnetoreception
S. Mann, N. H. Sparks, M. M. Walker, J. L. Kirschvink


Although ferromagnetic material has been detected in the tissues of a variety of animals that are known or suspected to respond to magnetic fields, in only a few cases has the material been identified and its suitability for use in magnetoreception been determined. Using high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM), we have studied magnetic particles isolated from ethmoid tissue of the sockeye salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka. Low-magnification electron micrographs showed chains containing up to 58 (median = 21–25) electron-dense particles that were held together by intimately attached organic material. The particle size range was 25–60 nm with a mean of 48 nm and a standard deviation of 8.5 nm. Elemental analysis, by energy-dispersive X-ray analysis (EDXA), electron diffraction patterns and HRTEM lattice images, showed that many of the particles were structurally well-ordered and crystallographically single-domain magnetite. These results imply that the production of the biomineral is under precise biological control. The crystal morphology was cubo-octahedral with the (111) faces of adjacent crystals lying perpendicular to the chain axis. The magnetic moments of the particles will therefore be aligned along the chain axis and will sum to produce a total moment dependent on the number of particles present in each chain. In the presence of the geomagnetic field, the mean moment for the particles will give a magnetic to thermal energy ratio of about 0.2. The corresponding calculations for individual chains gave two clusters of ratios ranging between 2.7 and 5.3 and between 6.6 and 9.5. The implications of these results in the possible use of the particles in magnetoreception are discussed.