Mice Get "Human" Vision in Gene Experiment

March 22, 2007

Give a mouse the right new genes, and presto—it'll see like people do.

Researchers have added genes to the genomes of lab mice that are "blueprints" for a class of color receptors unique to primates, such as humans, apes, and monkeys.

With their new genes, some of the mice passed tests showing they were able to see in "full color," trichromatic vision. Normally mice see a muted array of grays, blues, and yellows.

The findings hint that mammal brains (including our own) are extremely adaptable—ready to process inputs they didn't even know existed.

The study also raises the possibility that color vision as we know it could have arisen from a single mutation.

(Related: "New Mouse Teeth, Whiskers Grown From Handful of Cells" [February 26, 2007].)

New Visual Realm

Trichromacy depends on three types of photoreceptor cells in the eye, which absorb light at different wavelengths.

For example, short-wavelength receptors are most sensitive to blues, medium-wavelength receptors are most sensitive to greens, and long-wavelength receptors are most sensitive to reds.

When light hits the receptors, the brain compares their responses to perceive color.

Normally, nonprimate mammals see with dichromatic color vision, because their brains contain receptors only for short and medium wavelengths. This makes most mammals somewhat color-blind, relative to primates.

The new study is by Gerald Jacobs of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and colleagues at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, both in Baltimore, Maryland. The findings will be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

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