New York University biologists have identified a new mechanism for regulating color vision by studying a mutant fly named after Frank ('Ol Blue Eyes) Sinatra. Their findings, which appear in the journal Nature, focus on how the visual system functions in order to preserve the fidelity of color discrimination throughout the life of an organism. They also offer new insights into how genes controlling color detection are turned on and off.
Many biologists study how different cells develop to acquire their fate. The NYU research team, headed by Claude Desplan, a professor of biology, examined how they stay the same. Cells have complex functions that must be maintained through extensive coordination, and failure to do so could lead to "confused" cells whose function is not clear. This is particularly important for cells, such as neurons, which live for a long timeusually the entire lifetime of an animal.
The NYU researchers focused on the photoreceptor neurons in the retina of the fruit fly Drosophila. Drosophila is a powerful model for studying eye development as it is amenable to very precise genetic manipulations. This allows researchers to analyze how the visual system functions when its different elements are affected.
The work builds upon a previous finding from Desplan's laboratory. In a 2005 study, published in Cell, Desplan and his colleagues identified a molecular pathway by which one photoreceptor cell type controls its choice to be sensitive to one color of light vs. anotherin this instance, green vs. blue. This sensitivity is due to the presence of light-sensing proteins, Rhodopsins: each photoreceptor makes a decision to express either blue light-sensitive Rhodopsin5 or green light-sensitive Rhodopsin6, but not both. This exclusive expression of different Rhodopsins underlies the fly's ability to discriminate colors.
In the Nature study, the researchers explored a phenomenon that occurs
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New York University