Without bacteria we wouldn’t have skyscrapers…

Periodic table Number : 26    /    known as element  “Fe” (from latin Ferrum)

Iron is the most common element on earth by mass, it’s found in rocks and living things.  It’s in our blood which is why its red in colour due the reaction with oxygen when transferred from our lungs into the haemoglobin.  But how did it get there in the first place?  To understand this we need to take a big step back in time, 1.8 billion years ago, when atoms of iron were floating around in the oceans.  Bacteria capable of photosynthesis releasing oxygen into the sea enabled iron to be converted into hematite and magnetite minerals which sank to the sea floor.  This was fundamental to the geological process in forming iron deposits which were later covered by other minerals and compressed into rock over millions of years.

iron ore mine in Australia

Iron ore was first used in the near east and spread around the Mediterranean in all directions expanding populations as a result of more efficient tools and the ‘iron age’ began.   The end of the bronze age around 1200BC was heralded by the development of iron smelting (heating iron ore with coal) which in turn lead to the birth to the industrial revolution in Northern Europe changing societies rapidly with mass production methods.

ancient iron smelting technique in Rwanda

Skyscrapers rely on steel (99% iron 1% carbon) to give the structure enough strength to build as high as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 828 meters, all thanks to bacteria

Today we can see chemotrophic bacteria which get their energy by oxidising molecules of iron and therefore thrive in areas rich in iron deposits so the bacterial cycle continues. .  When you see orange coloured stream beds you are seeing the specialised iron oxidising bacteria at work.

Humans need iron or we become anaemic (tired and lacking vitality) and we get this by eating food containing iron.  Humans are 10%  bacteria (by mass) and those bacteria too need iron and they have specialised ways of harvesting the iron they need from their human host. “Iron is the single most important micronutrient bacteria need to survive,” (Doyle, 2008) and without bacteria humans can’t survive.  This is one of the many symbiotic relationships animals and humans have with bacteria.

bacteria that feed on iron


Doyle, 2008: Journal of Bacteriology (volume 190, issue 16) published by the American Society for Microbiology. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080731140223.htm

Iron-Oxidizing Bacteria: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/44689809_Iron-Oxidizing_Bacteria_An_Environmental_and_Genomic_Perspective


Magnetoreception in Humans??

Dr. Robin Baker in the late 1970’s conducted a series of experiments based at Manchester University to find out whether or not human beings possess the physical capacity to detect the earths magnetic field.  His finding were published in the New Scientist in 1980 (article).  Unfortunately, peer reviews later discredited his findings when the repeated experiments were found to be inconclusive. 

Yet more recent scientific studies have used more controlled environments and sophisticated Electroencephalography (EEG) techniques to suggest there may be a ‘lost’ sixth sense or a ‘primal sense’ as geophysicist Joe Kirschvink presented at the Royal Institute of Navigation in London in 2016, that some people may be able to tap into better than others. 

In the same way some people have better eyesight or hearing, so it may be the same when it comes to sensing the earths magnetic field.  As in most of the animals that have been studied, from fruit flies to whales, evidence of magnetoreception has been found, it is therefore puzzling that humans appear, in an evolutionary sense, to have lost (at worst) or have an extremely weak sense (at best) of the earths magnetic field.  The reasons for this may be an evolutionary deselection of this sense in favour of the remaining 5 senses or it may be that we are surrounded by electric cables that generate magnetic fields therefore confusing our magnetic sense apparatus as it does with animals.  Yet studies continue to find out more about this ‘primal’ sense.

It’s clear from human explorations over the centuries that we need to navigate using a compass, the sun or the stars as we can’t rely on a natural sense of direction as this study by Jan Souman  showed in 2007, concluding that a “drift in the subjective straight ahead [direction] may be the result of accumulating noise in all components of the sensorimotor system”.   Here are some GPS recorded routes of participants in the experiment.  This study clearly shows how bad our magnetoreception can be and is at odds with Joe Kirschvinks claims in 2016.

Perhaps some anthropological findings can point to evidence that suggests some cultures can rely more on an ‘intuitive’ sense of direction when background noise can be eliminated.  Polynesian sailors, known as masters of navigation have been known to  travel for 1000’s of miles in the Pacific ocean without sight of land though day and night, and in thick fog without rest and sill maintain a true direction. If true this account may favour magnetoreception in their ‘sense’ hierarchy as a matter of survival in particular circumstances.  He recorded many interviews with Pacific inlanders and recounts that many of those interviewed talked of extreme situations where “they suddenly calmed down and intuitively knew the right course” [Finney, B. 1995].

However, Finney may not have been aware of the existence of Stick Charts, (rudimentary maps,)  which would have helped identify landmarks when they came into view and therefore re-setting their intuitive compass.

So it seems, in light of more recent evidence, the persuit of magnetoreception in humans may be more a romantic notion than science but I’m sure the question of whether it’s possible to tap into the earths magnetic field won’t go away until it’s proven one way or the other. 


“A sense of Magnetism” New Scientist, Sept 1980 (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=FMQQnijnhsUC&pg=PA844&dq=robin+baker+new+scientist+magnetic&hl=en&ei=GU79TfWdD5Hxsgbo_q3zDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result#v=onepage&q=robin%20baker%20new%20scientist%20magnetic&f=true).  

Finney, B. (1995). A role for magnetoreception in human navigation? Current Anthropology, 36, 500–506. (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/204386?journalCode=ca)

Jan Souman :  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2009/08/20/do-lost-people-really-go-round-in-circles/

Jan Souman :  Walking straight into circles. Curr Biol. 2009 Sep 29;19(18):1538-42. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.053. Epub 2009 Aug 20. Souman JL1, Frissen I, Sreenivasa MN, Ernst MO.


Animal disorientation due to Human magnetic ‘noise’

It’s proven that many animals possess a sense that make them aware of the earths magnetic field,  mice, rats, flies, bees, birds, whales, dolphins, turtles, dogs, deer, cows, snails, foxes, bats, eels and so on, have all been scientifically  proven to have ‘magnetoreception’.  This magneto sense is a precision instrument like hearing or eyesight and is sensitive to minute variations in magnetism which is why many animals have been shown to be affected by man made magnetism, namely electricity.  As Michael Faraday showed us 200 years ago, magnetism is an integral part of electricity.  Cows naturally align themselves along the north-south magnetic field as do Roe Deer but both display random alignment when in the vicinity of  electricity cables carried by pylons across fields (Burda et al., 2009) see article.

In red foxes it has been proven that interference with the natural magnetic field by humans via electric cables can have a detrimental effect on it’s hunting behaviour.  Red fox align themselves in a particular direction before pouncing on rodents underground, they are more successful in a north east direction (Cˇ erveny ́ et al., 2011).

It has also been demonstrated that the reason dogs often spin in circles whilst trying to defecate is because they may not get a good sense the earths natural magnetic field, perhaps because of electromagnetism produced in underground cables. (article)

dogs defecate to field lines

Radar, has proliferated the natural environment across the globe which produces electromagnetic magnetic waves travelling long distances through the earth, the sea and air.  Radar is used in ship navigation, mobile phone, radio and tv, air traffic control, weather monitoring and satellite technology.  There are WHO guidelines for it’s safe use in humans (article) but we are less sensitive than birds for example where it has been shown that radar does affect migratory behaviour (article).

The question that arises is to what degree are animals with magneto reception, in the air, on the ground and in the sea, being affected by the electromagnetic noise we humans emit all over the earth?  Just because we humans have an almost extinct magneto sense should we not be protecting the depleting wild biomass left on the earth ? (article)


Burda, H., Begall, S., Cˇ erveny ́, J., Neef, J., & Neˇmec, P. (2009). Extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields disrupt magnetic alignment of ruminants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, 5708–5713.

Cˇ erveny ́, J., Begall, S., Koubek, P., Nova ́kova ́, P., & Burda, H. (2011). Directional prefer- ence may enhance hunting accuracy in foraging foxes. Biology Letters, 7, 355–357. Cook, C. M., Thomas, A. W., & Prato, F. S. (2002). Human electrophysiological and cognitive effects of exposure to ELF magnetic and ELF modulated RF and microwave fields: a review of recent studies. Bioelectromagnetics, 23, 144–157.

Cow’s magneto reception : https://www.nature.com/news/2008/080825/full/news.2008.1059.html

Dogs defecating ritual: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/jan/08/dogs-defecate-earths-magnetic-field-research-finds


Eleanor Sheridan, Jacquelyn Randolet, Travis Lee DeVault, Thomas Walter Seamans, Bradley Fields Blackwell, & Esteban Fernández-Juricic. (2015). The effects of radar on avian behavior: Implications for wildlife management at airports. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 171, 241–252. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2015.08.001.