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Nature. 2012 Apr 11;484(7394):367-70. doi: 10.1038/nature11046.

Clusters of iron-rich cells in the upper beak of pigeons are macrophages not magnetosensitive neurons.

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1
Institute of Molecular Pathology, Dr Bohr-Gasse, 1030 Vienna, Austria.

Abstract

Understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms that mediate magnetosensation in vertebrates is a formidable scientific problem. One hypothesis is that magnetic information is transduced into neuronal impulses by using a magnetite-based magnetoreceptor. Previous studies claim to have identified a magnetic sense system in the pigeon, common to avian species, which consists of magnetite-containing trigeminal afferents located at six specific loci in the rostral subepidermis of the beak. These studies have been widely accepted in the field and heavily relied upon by both behavioural biologists and physicists. Here we show that clusters of iron-rich cells in the rostro-medial upper beak of the pigeon Columbia livia are macrophages, not magnetosensitive neurons. Our systematic characterization of the pigeon upper beak identified iron-rich cells in the stratum laxum of the subepidermis, the basal region of the respiratory epithelium and the apex of feather follicles. Using a three-dimensional blueprint of the pigeon beak created by magnetic resonance imaging and computed tomography, we mapped the location of iron-rich cells, revealing unexpected variation in their distribution and number--an observation that is inconsistent with a role in magnetic sensation. Ultrastructure analysis of these cells, which are not unique to the beak, showed that their subcellular architecture includes ferritin-like granules, siderosomes, haemosiderin and filopodia, characteristics of iron-rich macrophages. Our conclusion that these cells are macrophages and not magnetosensitive neurons is supported by immunohistological studies showing co-localization with the antigen-presenting molecule major histocompatibility complex class II. Our work necessitates a renewed search for the true magnetite-dependent magnetoreceptor in birds.

PMID:
22495303
DOI:
10.1038/nature11046
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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