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J Neurosci. 2012 Dec 12;32(50):17977-87. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3069-12.2012.

Dissecting the determinants of light sensitivity in amphioxus microvillar photoreceptors: possible evolutionary implications for melanopsin signaling.

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Department of Biology and Institute of Genetics, National University of Colombia, 111321 Bogotá, Colombia.


Melanopsin, a photopigment related to the rhodopsin of microvillar photoreceptors of invertebrates, evolved in vertebrates to subserve nonvisual light-sensing functions, such as the pupillary reflex and entrainment of circadian rhythms. However, vertebrate circadian receptors display no hint of a microvillar specialization and show an extremely low light sensitivity and sluggish kinetics. Recently in amphioxus, the most basal chordate, melanopsin-expressing photoreceptors were characterized; these cells share salient properties with both rhabdomeric photoreceptors of invertebrates and circadian receptors of vertebrates. We used electrophysiology to dissect the gain of the light-transduction process in amphioxus and examine key features that help outline the evolutionary transition toward a sensor optimized to report mean ambient illumination rather than mediating spatial vision. By comparing the size of current fluctuations attributable to single photon melanopsin isomerizations with the size of single-channels activated by light, we concluded that the gain of the transduction cascade is lower than in rhabdomeric receptors. In contrast, the expression level of melanopsin (gauged by measuring charge displacements during photo-induced melanopsin isomerization) is comparable with that of canonical visual receptors. A modest amplification in melanopsin-using receptors is therefore apparent in early chordates; the decrease in photopigment expression-and loss of the anatomical correlates-observed in vertebrates subsequently enabled them to attain the low photosensitivity tailored to the role of circadian receptors.

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