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Fruit flies are a powerful model for studying the color vision process as they are amenable to very specific genetic manipulations, allowing researchers to analyze how the visual system functions when different elements of the retina are affected. “This simple insect can achieve sophisticated color discrimination and detect a broader spectrum of colors than we can, especially in the UV,” says NYU biologist Claude Desplan. (Courtesy: iStockphoto)

NYU (US)—Biologists have identified, in greater detail, how the retina’s cellular hardware is used in color preference. The work enhances our understanding of how eyes and the brain process color.

The findings by researchers at New York University and the University of Würzburg were published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Light can serve as an attractive or repulsive landmark for orientation—we identify an object or a light source at a certain location in visual space, then approach it or retreat from it. This process, called phototaxis, was the focus of the study.

The research specifically examined the photoreceptor cells in the retinas of the fruit fly Drosophila.

Drosophila is a powerful model for studying the color vision process as it is amenable to very specific genetic manipulations, allowing researchers to analyze how its visual system functions when different elements of its retina are affected.

The visual systems of most species contain photoreceptors with distinct spectral sensitivities that allow animals to distinguish lights by their spectral composition (i.e., color). In Drosophila, six of these (R1–R6) are responsible for motion detection and are sensitive to the brightness or dimness of a broad spectrum of light. Two others (R7 and R8) are used for color vision by comparing ultraviolet light (UV), detected by R7, with green or blue light detected by two types of R8.

The team investigated how photoreceptor types contribute to phototaxis by blocking the function of either R7 or R8, or a combination of a range of photoreceptors (R1-R6, R7 and/or R8).

They constructed two sets of “Y-shaped mazes” with two different types of light at the ends of each: UV and blue in one and blue and green in the other. Under this arrangement, the fly would show a preference for certain type of light (UV vs. blue in one maze; blue vs. green in the other) by moving toward it. The researchers could then link specific preferences to the make-up of each fly’s visual system.

In a “UV vs. blue” choice, flies with only R1–R6 and flies with only R7/R8 photoreceptors preferred the blue to the UV light. This finding suggested that these two sets of photoreceptors function separately in phototaxis as flies with only one of these sets showed similar preferences.

Additional tests showed that each subclass of photoreceptors is used by the fly to distinguish colors and setup its innate color preference.

“This simple insect can achieve sophisticated color discrimination and detect a broader spectrum of colors than we can, especially in the UV,” says NYU biologist Claude Desplan, one of the study’s authors. “It is a great model system to understand how the retina and the brain process visual information.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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