This is Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Jason Goldman.
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Hundreds of millions of years ago a humble fish swam in the lakes and rivers of the supercontinent Gondwana. Eventually Gondwana broke apart, becoming the continents we know today. And the descendants of that fish, now called cichlids, continue to swim the fresh waters of both Africa and South America.
Cichlids have some of the most incredible visual systems known. Humans have genes that code for three different types of visual pigments, called opsins. Cichlids have seven.
"But what is interesting within cichlids, which is this group of very diverse fishes, is that they can express different sets of these seven genes. So they only express three typically, but different species express different groups of these seven genes."
Biologist Daniel Escobar-Camacho, from the University of Maryland in College Park.
"So for example, we have opsin genes that code for the blue, green, and red opsin...whereas cichlids have genes that are sensitive to UV, violet, blue, blue-green, green, light green, and red."
But selection pressure has kept only some of those genes intact.
African cichlids, whose visual systems are well studied, evolved in fairly clear, calm, blue lakes with plenty of sunlight. And it was known that they've maintained the genes for seeing short wavelength light, at the blue end of the spectrum. But their South American counterparts live in the murky waters of the Amazon River basin, bathed mostly in reds and oranges.
Escobar-Camacho analyzed DNA from three different Amazonian cichlids: the freshwater Angelfish, the Discus, and the Oscar, all of which are also popular in home aquariums. He discovered that each species has completely lost at least one of the seven opsin genes, and some have even lost two. But they've each lost different genes.
"What is interesting is that they are expressing genes in the retina that allow them to be long wavelength-sensitive. And this is in concordance with the light environment in Amazon waters, because Amazon waters transmit long wavelengths best."
In other words, Amazonian cichlids were most sensitive to red and orange light, which makes sense because Amazonian rivers filter out most of the blues and greens. The results are in the journal Molecular Ecology.
The finding is consistent with an idea called the "sensitivity hypothesis," which holds that a color visual system evolves by adapting to the dominant wavelengths of light in the environment. In other words, what you get is what you see.
Thanks for the minute for Scientific American — 60-Second Science Science. I'm Jason Goldman.