New light sensing molecule discovered in the fruit fly brain

Left: A fruit fly showing location of brain pacemaker cells that express rhodopsin 7. Right: Depiction of rhodopsin 7 molecular structure. Credit: Craig Montell

Six biological pigments called rhodopsins play well-established roles in light-sensing in the fruit fly eye. Three of them also have light-independent roles in temperature sensation. New research shows that a seventh rhodopsin, Rh7, is expressed in the brain of fruit flies where it regulates the fly’s day-night activity cycles. The study appears in Nature and was funded by the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.


“Rh7 is the first example of a rhodopsin that is important in setting by being expressed in the central , rather than the eye,” said Craig Montell, Ph.D., Duggan Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara and senior author of the study. This newly discovered role for Rh7 could have clinical implications down the road. “Identifying new roles for light-sensitive opsins is essential for understanding degenerative retinal disorders and developing potential new treatments,” said Lisa Neuhold, Ph.D., program director at the National Eye Institute.

Rhodopsins, discovered in the 1870s, are well-known for their important role in light-sensing and . The six previously known fly rhodopsins account for the full function of photoreceptor cells in the fly’s eyes, so although the fruit fly genome contained the sequence of a seventh rhodopsin, the role of Rh7 was unclear.

To investigate the role of Rh7, Montell and collaborators at the University of California, Irvine, first confirmed that Rh7 sensed light by doing genetic experiments that replaced Rh1, the primary light-sensor in photoreceptor cells of the fly eye, with Rh7. The researchers found that Rh7 could functionally substitute for Rh1 in flies missing Rh1, as measured by electroretinogram, which is an extracellular recording of a neural signal in the fly eye in response to light.

Next, the researchers used antibodies recognizing Rh7 to determine its expression pattern. They found that it was expressed in the brain’s central pacemaker neurons, which play a role in regulating circadian rhythms. Montell and his team reared under a 12-hour light/12-hour dark cycle, then extended one light cycle to 20 hours and measured how quickly the flies adjusted their daily activity to match the new light/dark cycle. By measuring how often the flies crossed an infrared beam positioned in the center of the vial, the researchers could track daily patterns of activity. They showed that the flies missing Rh7 took significantly longer to adjust than the normal, wild type flies. The researchers also examined the effect of…

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