Exploring the sixth sense
Many animals navigate by means of a kind of sixth sense known as magnetoreception, the ability to detect and interact with the earth’s magnetic field. In some animals, this process is clearly understood: migratory butterflies, for example, depend on UV light to perceive differences in magnetic fields. But pigeons, despite their celebrated homing abilities, present a much more enigmatic case. While it appears that in pigeons—and also in some worms—magnetoreception is genetically coded, the specific biophysical mechanisms of the ways in which these animals interact with magnetic fields remain mysterious.
Dr. Polina Anikeeva of the MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering sees an opportunity in this enigma. She hopes that by better understanding the ways that magnetoreception functions in pigeons and roundworms, she will be able to prepare mammalian neurons to respond to magnetic stimuli. She envisions subsequently relying on magnetic fields as a convenient and non-invasive way to stimulate neural activity deep within the brain, which would have far-reaching effects on her lab’s work on neuroprosthetic devices.
The Bose Grant provides me with the rare opportunity to fulfill my curiosity and contribute my understanding of nanomagnetism to a field that has enjoyed numerous physiological and behavioral studies, and yet has not benefitted from basic mechanistic experiments.”
An elusive—yet fascinating—issue
Dr. Anikeeva’s training and experience as physicist, materials scientist, and bioengineer has prepared her amply for this particular challenge, but this project constitutes a change of direction from her lab’s primary focus of creating neuroprosthetic devices by means of optoelectronic and nanomagnetic materials. What’s more, funding agencies are wary of magnetoreception, as there are a number of conflicting hypotheses that have made the subject controversial.
The Bose Research Grant Program has given Dr. Anikeeva an opportunity to satisfy her curiosity and to bring her expertise to bear on an enigmatic issue with far-reaching potential. “Although magnetoreception is a challenging subject with no guaranteed outcome,” she says, “it continues to fascinate me. Having built sufficient background in magnetism physics, molecular biology, optics and electrophysiology, I can learn from the investigation process as well as contribute a unique skill set to this seemingly elusive problem.”
A foundation for neuroprosthetic innovation
The Bose Research Grant will provide Dr. Anikeeva with the opportunity to fulfill her longstanding curiosity, and to pursue collaborations across MIT and within the scientific community that will help to shed light on this issue. By taking advantage of the genomics resources available at the Broad Institute, for instance, Dr. Anikeeva and her team plan to isolate the genes commonly linked to magnetoreception, identify what they produce, and determine how they might be transferred to mammalian cells. Dr. Anikeeva explains: “This project enables me to enhance my research toolkit by introducing novel methods in molecular and synthetic biology, genetic engineering and patch-clamp electrophysiology, as well as expanding spectroscopic capabilities in my lab. Taken together, these will allow me to pursue more ambitious neurophrosthetic projects in my future career.”
New advances and new avenues
Reflecting on her experience as a Bose Fellow, Dr. Anikeeva is most grateful for the opportunity to let her curiosity lead the way. “This is the reason I became a scientist in the first place,” she says. “Most of the time I write proposals for research that will allow me to prove things I already understand. The Bose Fellowship let me explore something I didn’t already know.”
Over the course of the Bose Fellowship, Dr. Anikeeva and her team developed custom infrastructure that would allow them to detect minute fluctuations in magnetic fields within biological tissue. These apparatuses can also support a number of applications at the intersection of magnetic materials and molecular biology. With the help of these new tools, the group learned a great deal about magnetoreception—but the fundamental mechanism that underlies the phenomenon remains elusive. Dr. Anikeeva explains, “We made headway on a number of areas, but how light-independent magnetoreception functions is still a mystery—and it is only becoming more mysterious as we learn more and more about it.” The group plans to continue their research with the support of partners and collaborators from peer institutions in the US and UK.