Vision frequently mediates critical behaviours, and photoreceptors must respond to the light available to accomplish these tasks. Most photoreceptors are thought to contain a single visual pigment, an opsin protein bound to a chromophore, which together determine spectral sensitivity. Mechanisms of spectral tuning include altering the opsin, changing the chromophore and incorporating pre-receptor filtering. A few exceptions to the use of a single visual pigment have been documented in which a single mature photoreceptor coexpresses opsins that form spectrally distinct visual pigments, and in these exceptions the functional significance of coexpression is unclear. Here we document for the first time photoreceptors coexpressing spectrally distinct opsin genes in a manner that tunes sensitivity to the light environment. Photoreceptors of the cichlid fish, Metriaclima zebra, mix different pairs of opsins in retinal regions that view distinct backgrounds. The mixing of visual pigments increases absorbance of the corresponding background, potentially aiding the detection of dark objects. Thus, opsin coexpression may be a novel mechanism of spectral tuning that could be useful for detecting prey, predators and mates. However, our calculations show that coexpression of some opsins can hinder colour discrimination, creating a trade-off between visual functions.
Keywords: cichlid; cone; opsin coexpression; photoreceptor; spectral tuning.
© 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.