Adaptation of Antarctic Icefish Vision to Extreme Environments

Mol Biol Evol. 2023 Apr 4;40(4):msad030. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msad030.


Extreme environments, such as Antarctic habitats, present major challenges for many biological processes. Antarctic icefishes (Crynotothenioidea) represent a compelling system to investigate the molecular basis of adaptation to cold temperatures. Here, we explore how the sub-zero habitats of Antarctic icefishes have impacted rhodopsin (RH1) function, the temperature-sensitive dim-light visual pigment found in rod photoreceptors. Using likelihood models and ancestral reconstruction, we find that accelerated evolutionary rates in icefish RH1 underlie unique amino acid mutations absent from other deep-dwelling fishes, introduced before (S160A) and during (V259M) the onset of modern polar conditions. Functional assays reveal that these mutations red-shift rhodopsin spectral absorbance, consistent with spectral irradiance under sea ice. These mutations also lower the activation energy associated with retinal release of the light-activated RH1, and accelerate its return to the dark state, likely compensating for a cold-induced decrease in kinetic rates. These are adaptations in key properties of rhodopsin that mediate rod sensitivity and visual performance in the cold dark seas of the Antarctic.

Keywords: icefish; rhodopsin; vision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological* / genetics
  • Antarctic Regions
  • Biological Evolution
  • Extreme Environments
  • Rhodopsin* / genetics
  • Vision, Ocular


  • Rhodopsin