Mice See New Hue With Added Gene

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007

Providing a kaleidoscopic upgrade to creatures that are largely colorblind, scientists have endowed mice with a human gene that allows the rodents to see the world in full Technicolor splendor.

The advance, which relied on imaginative tests to confirm that the mice can perceive all the hues that people see, helps resolve a long-standing debate about how color vision arose in human ancestors tens of millions of years ago. That seminal event brought a host of practical advantages, such as the ability to spot ripe fruit, and unveiled new aesthetic pleasures -- autumn foliage, magenta sunsets and the blush of a potential mate, among them.

The work also points to the possibility of curing some of the millions of colorblind Americans -- and even enhancing the vision of healthy people, allowing them to experience a richer palette than is possible with standard-issue eyes.

"It opens up huge doors to understanding how color vision evolved and where it can go," said Brian C. Verrelli, an evolutionary geneticist who studies color vision at Arizona State University and was not involved in the work, published today in the journal Science.

Mice, like most mammals, have limited color perception, equivalent to that of people with red-green color blindness. Their eyes have two kinds of color detectors, or "cone" cells, each sensitive to a different part of the spectrum.

Unable to differentiate between reds and greens, they see the world as a blend of blues and yellows, with gray overlays added by black-and-white-registering "rod" cells.

By contrast, most people -- along with Old World primates and South and Central American female monkeys -- have three kinds of cones. That gives birth to the vibrant world of reds and a vast repertoire of related colors.

Scientists studying the evolution of color vision had identified the DNA mutation that gave rise to the third kind of cone cell. But they have argued over whether that mutation immediately conferred a new breadth of color perception or whether generations had to pass until changes in the brain's neural circuitry could take advantage of the novel inputs.

"This experiment says it had an advantage immediately," said Jeremy Nathans of the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, who led the new study with Gerald H. Jacobs of the University of California at Santa Barbara. "And if you think about it, that's a very good way to build a brain, so that even a small evolutionary tweak can immediately give you an advantage."

Nathans, Jacobs and their colleagues snipped the red-detecting gene from human retinal cells and inserted it into mouse embryos. The resulting mice had the usual two kinds of mouse cone cells and also the human one -- everything required for "trichromatic" vision.

Tests showed that all the light-detecting cells were working. But were the mice really seeing red?

To find out, the team placed each engineered mouse in a box containing three small illuminated screens. Working at first with changing combinations of black or white screens, they trained the mice to touch the screen that was different. Correct answers were rewarded with a drop of soy milk.

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