Molecular evolution of trichromacy in primates

Vision Res. 1998 Nov;38(21):3299-306. doi: 10.1016/s0042-6989(97)00443-4.


Although trichromacy in Old and New World primates is based on three visual pigments with spectral peaks in the violet (SW, shortwave), green (MW, middlewave) and yellow-green (LW, longwave) regions of the spectrum, the underlying genetic mechanisms differ. The SW pigment is encoded in both cases by an autosomal gene and, in Old World primates, the MW and LW pigments by separate genes on the X chromosome. In contrast, there is a single polymorphic X-linked gene in most New World primates with three alleles coding for spectrally distinct pigments. The one reported exception to this rule is the New World howler monkey that follows the Old World system of separate LW and MW genes. A comparison of gene sequences in these different genetic systems indicates that the duplication that gave rise to the separate MW and LW genes of Old World primates is more ancient than that in the howler monkey. In addition, the amino acid sequences of the two howler monkey pigments show similarities to the pigments encoded by the polymorphic gene of other New World primates. It would appear therefore that the howler monkey gene duplication arose after the split between New and Old World primates and was generated by an unequal crossover that placed two different forms of the New World polymorphic gene on to a single chromosome. In contrast, the lack of identity at variable sites within the New and Old World systems argues for the origin of the separate genes in Old World primates by the duplication of a single form of the gene followed by divergence to give spectrally distinct LW and MW pigments. In contrast, the similarity in amino acid variation across the tri-allelic system of New World primates indicates that this polymorphism had a single origin in New World primates. A striking feature of all these pigments is the use of a common set of substitutions at three amino acid sites to achieve the spectral shift from MW at around 530 nm to LW at around 560 nm. The separate origin of the trichromacy in New and Old World primates would indicate that the selection of these three sites is the result of convergent evolution, perhaps as a consequence of visual adaptation in both cases to foraging for yellow and orange fruits against a green foliage.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Alouatta / genetics
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Cebus / genetics
  • Color Perception / genetics*
  • DNA / analysis
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Exons
  • Humans
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Primates / physiology*
  • Retinal Pigments / genetics*
  • Rod Opsins / genetics


  • Retinal Pigments
  • Rod Opsins
  • DNA