Nav: Home

Why do birds migrate at night?

September 12, 2019

DALLAS (SMU) - It was a puzzle about birds.

Migratory birds are known to rely on Earth's magnetic field to help them navigate the globe. And it was suspected that a protein called cryptochrome, which is sensitive to blue light, was making it possible for birds to do this.

Yet many of these animals are also known to migrate at night when there isn't much light available. So it wasn't clear how cryptochrome would function under these conditions in birds.

A new study led by UT Southwestern Medical Center in collaboration with SMU (Southern Methodist University), though, may have figured out the answer to that puzzle.

Researchers found that cryptochromes from migratory birds have evolved a mechanism that enhances their ability to respond to light, which can enable them to sense and respond to magnetic fields.

"We were able to show that the protein cryptochrome is extremely efficient at collecting and responding to low levels of light," said SMU chemist Brian D. Zoltowski, who was one of the lead authors of a new study on the findings. "The result of this research is that we now understand how vertebrate cryptochromes can respond to very low light intensities and function under night time conditions."

The study was published in the journal PNAS in September.

Cryptochromes are found in both plants and animals and are responsible for circadian rhythms in various species. In birds, scientists were specifically focused on learning more about an unusual eye protein called CRY4, which is part of a class of cryptochromes.

The lab of Joseph Takahashi, a circadian rhythms expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center, worked with other UT Southwestern scientists to purify and solve the crystal structure of the protein - the first atomic structure of a photoactive cryptochrome molecule from a vertebrate. The lab of Brian Zoltowski, an expert in blue-light photoreceptors, studied the efficiency of the light-driven reactions - identifying a pathway unique to CRY4 proteins that facilitates function under low light conditions.

"Although in plants and insects, cryptochromes are known to be photoactive, which means they react to sunlight. Among vertebrates much less is known, and the majority of vertebrate cryptochromes do not appear to be photoactive," said Takahashi, chairman of neuroscience at UT Southwestern and an investigator with Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "This photosensitivity and the possibility that CRY4 is affected by the magnetic field make this specific cryptochrome a very interesting molecule."

Researchers took a sample of the CRY4 from a pigeon and grew crystals of the protein. They then exposed the crystals to x-rays, making it possible for them to map out the location of all the atoms in the protein.

And while pigeons are not night-migratory songbirds, the sequences of their CRY4 proteins are very similar, the study noted.

"These structures allow us to visualize at the atomic scale how these proteins function and understand how they may use blue-light to sense magnetic fields," said Zoltowski, associate professor of chemistry at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences. "The new structures also provide the first atomic level detail of how these proteins work, opening the door for more detailed studies on cryptochromes in migratory organisms."

In the study, researchers discovered unusual changes to key regions of the protein structure that can enhance their ability to collect light from their environment.

"Cryptochromes work by absorbing a photon of light, which causes an electron to move through a sequence of amino acids. These amino acids typically consist of a chain of 3 or 4 sites that act as a wire that electrons can flow through," explained Zoltowski. "But in pigeons, it was identified that this chain may be extended to contain 5 sites."

This mutation of the electron chain in pigeons makes cryptochrome less dependent on a bird's environment having a lot of light for the protein to be activated.

"Birds have evolved a mechanism to enhance the efficiency. So even when there is very little light around, they have enough signal generated to migrate," Zoltowski said.
-end-
Other co-authors of the study include UT Southwestern's Yogarany Chelliah, Anushka Wickramaratne, Wei Xu, Ryan E. Hibbs and Carla B. Green; SMU's Nischal Karki; Henrik Mouritsen from the University of Oldenburg; and Peter J. Hore and Lauren Jarocha from the University of Oxford.

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU's alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions,

Southern Methodist University

Related Magnetic Field Articles:

New research provides evidence of strong early magnetic field around Earth
New research from the University of Rochester provides evidence that the magnetic field that first formed around Earth was even stronger than scientists previously believed.
Massive photons in an artificial magnetic field
An international research collaboration from Poland, the UK and Russia has created a two-dimensional system -- a thin optical cavity filled with liquid crystal -- in which they trapped photons.
Adhesive which debonds in magnetic field could reduce landfill waste
Researchers at the University of Sussex have developed a glue which can unstick when placed in a magnetic field, meaning products otherwise destined for landfill, could now be dismantled and recycled at the end of their life.
Earth's last magnetic field reversal took far longer than once thought
Every several hundred thousand years or so, Earth's magnetic field dramatically shifts and reverses its polarity.
A new rare metals alloy can change shape in the magnetic field
Scientists developed multifunctional metal alloys that emit and absorb heat at the same time and change their size and volume under the influence of a magnetic field.
Physicists studied the influence of magnetic field on thin film structures
A team of scientists from Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University together with their colleagues from Russia, Japan, and Australia studied the influence of inhomogeneity of magnetic field applied during the fabrication process of thin-film structures made from nickel-iron and iridium-manganese alloys, on their properties.
'Magnetic topological insulator' makes its own magnetic field
A team of U.S. and Korean physicists has found the first evidence of a two-dimensional material that can become a magnetic topological insulator even when it is not placed in a magnetic field.
Scientists develop a new way to remotely measure Earth's magnetic field
By zapping a layer of meteor residue in the atmosphere with ground-based lasers, scientists in the US, Canada and Europe get a new view of Earth's magnetic field.
Magnetic field milestone
Physicists from the Institute for Solid State Physics at the University of Tokyo have generated the strongest controllable magnetic field ever produced.
New world record magnetic field
Scientists at the University of Tokyo have recorded the largest magnetic field ever generated indoors -- a whopping 1,200 tesla, as measured in the standard units of magnetic field strength.
More Magnetic Field News and Magnetic Field Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans 2.0
More than test scores or good grades–what do kids need for the future? This hour, TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, both during and after this time of crisis. Guests include educators Richard Culatta and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Space
One of the most consistent questions we get at the show is from parents who want to know which episodes are kid-friendly and which aren't. So today, we're releasing a separate feed, Radiolab for Kids. To kick it off, we're rerunning an all-time favorite episode: Space. In the 60's, space exploration was an American obsession. This hour, we chart the path from romance to increasing cynicism. We begin with Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan, with a story about the Voyager expedition, true love, and a golden record that travels through space. And astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson explains the Coepernican Principle, and just how insignificant we are. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.