Endocrine regulation of multichromatic color vision

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Aug 20;116(34):16882-16891. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1904783116. Epub 2019 Aug 5.


Vertebrate color vision requires spectrally selective opsin-based pigments, expressed in distinct cone photoreceptor populations. In primates and in fish, spectrally divergent opsin genes may reside in head-to-tail tandem arrays. Mechanisms underlying differential expression from such arrays have not been fully elucidated. Regulation of human red (LWS) vs. green (MWS) opsins is considered a stochastic event, whereby upstream enhancers associate randomly with promoters of the proximal or distal gene, and one of these associations becomes permanent. We demonstrate that, distinct from this stochastic model, the endocrine signal thyroid hormone (TH) regulates differential expression of the orthologous zebrafish lws1/lws2 array, and of the tandemly quadruplicated rh2-1/rh2-2/rh2-3/rh2-4 array. TH treatment caused dramatic, dose-dependent increases in abundance of lws1, the proximal member of the lws array, and reduced lws2 Fluorescent lws reporters permitted direct visualization of individual cones switching expression from lws2 to lws1 Athyroidism increased lws2 and reduced lws1, except within a small ventral domain of lws1 that was likely sustained by retinoic acid signaling. Changes in lws abundance and distribution in athyroid zebrafish were rescued by TH, demonstrating plasticity of cone phenotype in response to this signal. TH manipulations also regulated the rh2 array, with athyroidism reducing abundance of distal members. Interestingly, the opsins encoded by the proximal lws gene and distal rh2 genes are sensitive to longer wavelengths than other members of their respective arrays; therefore, endogenous TH acts upon each opsin array to shift overall spectral sensitivity toward longer wavelengths, underlying coordinated changes in visual system function during development and growth.

Keywords: cone; opsin; retina; thyroid hormone; zebrafish.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Genetically Modified / genetics
  • Animals, Genetically Modified / metabolism*
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / physiology
  • Humans
  • Rod Opsins / biosynthesis*
  • Rod Opsins / genetics
  • Thyroid Hormones / genetics
  • Thyroid Hormones / metabolism*
  • Zebrafish / genetics
  • Zebrafish / metabolism*


  • Rod Opsins
  • Thyroid Hormones
  • long-wavelength opsin
  • middle-wavelength opsin