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Annu Rev Vis Sci. 2019 Sep 15;5:177-200. doi: 10.1146/annurev-vision-091718-014926. Epub 2019 Jun 21.

The Retinal Basis of Vertebrate Color Vision.

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School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, BN1 9QG Brighton, United Kingdom; email:,
Institute for Ophthalmic Research, University of Tübingen, 72076 Tübingen, Germany.


The jawless fish that were ancestral to all living vertebrates had four spectral cone types that were probably served by chromatic-opponent retinal circuits. Subsequent evolution of photoreceptor spectral sensitivities is documented for many vertebrate lineages, giving insight into the ecological adaptation of color vision. Beyond the photoreceptors, retinal color processing is best understood in mammals, especially the blueON system, which opposes short- against long-wavelength receptor responses. For other vertebrates that often have three or four types of cone pigment, new findings from zebrafish are extending older work on teleost fish and reptiles to reveal rich color circuitry. Here, horizontal cells establish diverse and complex spectral responses even in photoreceptor outputs. Cone-selective connections to bipolar cells then set up color-opponent synaptic layers in the inner retina, which lead to a large variety of color-opponent channels for transmission to the brain via retinal ganglion cells.


color vision; cone photoreceptors; evolution; opponency; retina

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