Although mice, like most mammals, typically view the world with a limited color palette similar to what some people with red-green color blindness see scientists have now transformed their vision by introducing a single human gene into a mouse chromosome. The human gene codes for a light sensor that mice do not normally possess, and its insertion allowed the mice to distinguish colors as never before.
In a study published in the March 23, 2007, issue of the journal Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers at Johns Hopkins, together with researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara, demonstrated in a series of cleverly designed color vision tests that the genetic modification allows mice to see and distinguish among a broader spectrum of light waves. The experiments were designed to determine whether the brains of the genetically altered mice could efficiently process sensory information from the new photoreceptors in their eyes. Among mammals, this more complex type of color vision has only been observed in primates, and therefore the brains of mice did not need to evolve to make these discriminations.
The new abilities of the genetically engineered mice indicate that the mammalian brain possesses a flexibility that permits a nearly instantaneous upgrade in the complexity of color vision, say the studys senior authors, Gerald Jacobs and Jeremy Nathans.
The evolution of color vision has been a topic of intensive study for more than three decades. The new research is the most definitive yet in shedding light on the first steps that led to the emergence of trichromacy -- the variety of color vision found today in most primates, including humans.
What we are looking at in these mice is the same evolutionary event that happened in one of the distant ancestors of all primates and that led ultimately to the trichromatic color vision that we now enjoy, said Nathans.