From the ultrasonic to the infrared: molecular evolution and the sensory biology of bats

Front Physiol. 2013 May 30;4:117. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2013.00117. eCollection 2013.


Great advances have been made recently in understanding the genetic basis of the sensory biology of bats. Research has focused on the molecular evolution of candidate sensory genes, genes with known functions [e.g., olfactory receptor (OR) genes] and genes identified from mutations associated with sensory deficits (e.g., blindness and deafness). For example, the FoxP2 gene, underpinning vocal behavior and sensorimotor coordination, has undergone diversification in bats, while several genes associated with audition show parallel amino acid substitutions in unrelated lineages of echolocating bats and, in some cases, in echolocating dolphins, representing a classic case of convergent molecular evolution. Vision genes encoding the photopigments rhodopsin and the long-wave sensitive opsin are functional in bats, while that encoding the short-wave sensitive opsin has lost functionality in rhinolophoid bats using high-duty cycle laryngeal echolocation, suggesting a sensory trade-off between investment in vision and echolocation. In terms of olfaction, bats appear to have a distinctive OR repertoire compared with other mammals, and a gene involved in signal transduction in the vomeronasal system has become non-functional in most bat species. Bitter taste receptors appear to have undergone a "birth-and death" evolution involving extensive gene duplication and loss, unlike genes coding for sweet and umami tastes that show conservation across most lineages but loss in vampire bats. Common vampire bats have also undergone adaptations for thermoperception, via alternative splicing resulting in the evolution of a novel heat-sensitive channel. The future for understanding the molecular basis of sensory biology is promising, with great potential for comparative genomic analyses, studies on gene regulation and expression, exploration of the role of alternative splicing in the generation of proteomic diversity, and linking genetic mechanisms to behavioral consequences.

Keywords: echolocation; hearing; olfaction; perception; taste; vision.