Mechanisms of single-photon detection in rod photoreceptors

Methods Enzymol. 2000:316:186-202. doi: 10.1016/s0076-6879(00)16724-2.


Rod photoreceptors detect and encode incident photons exceptionally well. They collect sparse photons with high efficiency, maintain a low dark noise, and generate reproducible responses to each absorbed photon. The mechanisms involved in single-photon detection--control of the effective lifetime of a single active receptor molecule, amplification of the activity of this single molecule by a second-messenger cascade, and reliable transmission of small synaptic signals--recur throughout the nervous system. Indeed, several other sensory systems reach or approach limits set by quantization of their input signals. For example, olfactory receptors can detect single odorant molecules. Although our understanding of visual transduction and signal processing has advanced rapidly during the past 10-15 years, fundamental questions still remain: What mechanisms are responsible for the reproducibility of the rod's elementary response? What are the tradeoffs of speed and sensitivity in the transduction cascade? How are the rod single-photon responses reliably transmitted to the rest of the visual system? Future technical innovations, particularly better methods to monitor the activity of intermediate steps in transduction, will play an important role in providing answers.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bufonidae
  • Electrodes
  • Photons
  • Rod Cell Outer Segment / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction