Molecular Fingerprinting of On-Off Direction-Selective Retinal Ganglion Cells Across Species and Relevance to Primate Visual Circuits

J Neurosci. 2019 Jan 2;39(1):78-95. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1784-18.2018. Epub 2018 Oct 30.


The ability to detect moving objects is an ethologically salient function. Direction-selective neurons have been identified in the retina, thalamus, and cortex of many species, but their homology has remained unclear. For instance, it is unknown whether direction-selective retinal ganglion cells (DSGCs) exist in primates and, if so, whether they are the equivalent to mouse and rabbit DSGCs. Here, we used a molecular/circuit approach in both sexes to address these issues. In mice, we identify the transcription factor Satb2 (special AT-rich sequence-binding protein 2) as a selective marker for three RGC types: On-Off DSGCs encoding motion in either the anterior or posterior direction, a newly identified type of Off-DSGC, and an Off-sustained RGC type. In rabbits, we find that expression of Satb2 is conserved in On-Off DSGCs; however, it has evolved to include On-Off DSGCs encoding upward and downward motion in addition to anterior and posterior motion. Next, we show that macaque RGCs express Satb2 most likely in a single type. We used rabies virus-based circuit-mapping tools to reveal the identity of macaque Satb2-RGCs and discovered that their dendritic arbors are relatively large and monostratified. Together, these data indicate Satb2-expressing On-Off DSGCs are likely not present in the primate retina. Moreover, if DSGCs are present in the primate retina, it is unlikely that they express Satb2.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The ability to detect object motion is a fundamental feature of almost all visual systems. Here, we identify a novel marker for retinal ganglion cells encoding directional motion that is evolutionarily conserved in mice and rabbits, but not in primates. We show in macaque monkeys that retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) that express this marker comprise a single type and are morphologically distinct from mouse and rabbit direction-selective RGCs. Our findings indicate that On-Off direction-selective retinal neurons may have evolutionarily diverged in primates and more generally provide novel insight into the identity and organization of primate parallel visual pathways.

Keywords: direction selectivity; mouse vision; primate; retina; retinal ganglion cells; visual circuits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Fingerprinting*
  • Electrophysiological Phenomena / physiology
  • Female
  • Macaca
  • Male
  • Matrix Attachment Region Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Matrix Attachment Region Binding Proteins / physiology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Motion Perception / physiology
  • Primates
  • Rabbits
  • Retina / physiology
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / physiology*
  • Species Specificity
  • Transcription Factors / genetics
  • Transcription Factors / physiology
  • Visual Pathways / physiology*


  • Matrix Attachment Region Binding Proteins
  • SATB2 protein, mouse
  • Transcription Factors