The Symbiotic Magnetic-Sensing Hypothesis: Do Magnetotactic Bacteria underlie the Magnetic Sensing capability of Animals?

The ability to sense Earth’s magnetic field has evolved in various taxa. However, despite great efforts to find the ‘magnetic-sensor’ in vertebrates, the results of these scientific efforts remain inconclusive. A few decades ago, it was found that bacteria, known as magnetotactic bacteria (MTB), can move along a magnetic field using nanometric chain-like structures. Still, it is not fully clear why these bacteria evolved to have this capacity. Thus, while for MTB the ‘magnetic-sensor’ is known but the adaptive value is still under debate, for metazoa it is the other way around. In the absence of convincing evidence for any ‘magnetic-sensor’ in metazoan species sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field, we hypothesize that a mutualism between these species and MTB provides one. In this relationship the host benefits from a magnetotactic capacity, while the bacteria benefit a hosting environment and dispersal. We provide support for this hypothesis using existing literature, demonstrating that by placing the MTB as the ‘magnetic-sensor’, previously contradictory results are now in agreement and further show first supportive results. We also propose plausible mechanisms and ways to test the hypothesis. If proven correct, this hypothesis would shed light on the forces driving both animal and bacteria magnetotactic abilities.