Evolutionary Loss of Cone Photoreception in Balaenid Whales Reveals Circuit Stability in the Mammalian Retina

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Abstract

The classical understanding of mammalian vision is that it occurs through “duplex” retinae containing both rod and cone photoreceptors, the signals from which are processed through rod- and/or cone-specific signaling pathways. The recent discovery of rod monochromacy in some cetacean lineages provides a novel opportunity to investigate the effects of an evolutionary loss of cone photoreception on retinal organization. Sequence analysis of right whale (Eubalaena glacialis; family Balaenidae) cDNA derived from long-wavelength sensitive (LWS) cone opsin mRNA identified several mutations in the opsin coding sequence, suggesting the loss of cone cell function, but maintenance of non-photosensitive, cone opsin mRNA-expressing cells in the retina. Subsequently, we investigated the retina of the closely related bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus; family Balaenidae) to determine how the loss of cone-mediated photoreception affects light signaling pathways in the retina. Anti-opsin immunofluorescence demonstrated the total loss of cone opsin expression in B. mysticetus, whereas light microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, and bipolar cell (protein kinase C-α [PKC-α] and recoverin) immunofluorescence revealed the maintenance of cone soma, putative cone pedicles, and both rod and cone bipolar cell types. These findings represent the first immunological and anatomical evidence of a naturally occurring rod-monochromatic mammalian retina, and suggest that despite the loss of cone-mediated photoreception, the associated cone signaling structures (i.e., cone synapses and cone bipolar cells) may be maintained for multichannel rod-based signaling in balaenid whales. J. Comp. Neurol. 524:2873–2885, 2016. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Using genetic sequencing along with immunofluorescence and light and electron microscopy, the authors show that baleen whales have experienced an evolutionary loss of cone photoreception in their retinas, yet they maintain important components of the cone-based light signaling pathway, perhaps to enhance the sensitivity range of their remaining rod-based vision.

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