Radio waves from electrical devices can affect the biological clock of insects

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Findings do not suggest cellphones are harmful

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Weak radiofrequency fields seem to affect the biological clocks of cockroaches. If the discovery is confirmed, it could mean that weak radio waves – which are already known to disorient birds – are able to affect a wide range of animals.

However, Martin Vacha of Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, who conducted the study, said he was “very cautious” about his team’s results. Under normal conditions, there might be no effects on insects, he says, and the team makes no statements about possible effects on humans.

Other scientists are skeptical and say the study needs to be independently confirmed.

Many claims have been made about the possible effects of electromagnetic fields on humans and other animals. In particular, it has been claimed that radio waves from cell phones can cause cancer. But radio waves are far less energetic than, say, X-rays and don’t cause the DNA damage that leads to cancer. However, some researchers believe they may have more subtle effects on living tissue.

A few recent studies, for example, have suggested that static magnetic fields affect the biological clock of fruit flies. Vacha and her colleagues decided to see if they affected cockroaches as well.

Slow down the clock

His team kept the cockroaches under constant low UV light, with no clues as to whether it was night or day, and measured the animals’ activity using analysis software. pictures. From there, they calculated the time their biological clocks were keeping.

When they exposed the animals to static magnetic fields or low radio frequency broadband noise, the cockroaches’ activity periods became an hour or two longer. In other words, their biological clocks were running slower.

Vacha says the team tested far lower frequencies than cellphones. But many electrical devices, such as computers, produce this type of broadband noise.

However, if the cockroaches had been exposed to natural light cycles, the radio frequencies likely would have had little impact, Vacha says. “I guess in real life it doesn’t have such a big effect.”

While many studies have suggested that magnetic or electric fields affect animals in various ways, these results often fail when others repeat the tests, says Peter Hore of the University of Oxford. “Replication is crucial in this area.”

Hore says his own team failed to replicate two studies that found magnetic fields affect how fruit flies behave in a maze and how fast they climb through tubes.

Disoriented birds

However, one observation has emerged. Several studies have now shown that very low radiofrequency noise can disorient small migratory songbirds held in cages, says Hore. It’s intriguing because the main theory for how birds detect magnetic fields is through proteins called cryptochromes – and cryptochromes also play a key role in maintaining circadian rhythms in animals.

Vacha thinks that radio waves can interfere with animals’ body clocks via cryptochromes. His team has previously shown that turning off a cryptochrome gene in cockroaches prevents them from detecting magnetic fields.

But the radio waves that perturb the orientation of caged birds are theoretically a thousand times too weak to affect cryptochromes, says Hore, so the mechanism is still unclear. “It’s a bit of a puzzle.”

There is also no evidence that wild birds are affected by electromagnetic fields. They can fly high enough to avoid interference, says Hore.

Some people believe that they are “hypersensitive” to electromagnetic fields and suffer from adverse effects such as headaches. But tests have shown that these people are unable to tell whether or not they have been exposed to fields.

Journal reference: Royal Society Interface JournalDOI: 10.1098/rsif.2019.0285

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