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Vis Neurosci. 2011 Nov;28(6):485-97. doi: 10.1017/S0952523811000423.

Vitamin A activates rhodopsin and sensitizes it to ultraviolet light.

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Department of Ophthalmology, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA.


The visual pigment, rhodopsin, consists of opsin protein with 11-cis retinal chromophore, covalently bound. Light activates rhodopsin by isomerizing the chromophore to the all-trans conformation. The activated rhodopsin sets in motion a biochemical cascade that evokes an electrical response by the photoreceptor. All-trans retinal is eventually released from the opsin and reduced to vitamin A. Rod and cone photoreceptors contain vast amounts of rhodopsin, so after exposure to bright light, the concentration of vitamin A can reach relatively high levels within their outer segments. Since a retinal analog, β-ionone, is capable of activating some types of visual pigments, we tested whether vitamin A might produce a similar effect. In single-cell recordings from isolated dark-adapted salamander green-sensitive rods, exogenously applied vitamin A decreased circulating current and flash sensitivity and accelerated flash response kinetics. These changes resembled those produced by exposure of rods to steady light. Microspectrophotometric measurements showed that vitamin A accumulated in the outer segments and binding of vitamin A to rhodopsin was confirmed in in vitro assays. In addition, vitamin A improved the sensitivity of photoreceptors to ultraviolet (UV) light. Apparently, the energy of a UV photon absorbed by vitamin A transferred by a radiationless process to the 11-cis retinal chromophore of rhodopsin, which subsequently isomerized. Therefore, our results suggest that vitamin A binds to rhodopsin at an allosteric binding site distinct from the chromophore binding pocket for 11-cis retinal to activate the rhodopsin, and that it serves as a sensitizing chromophore for UV light.

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