Adaptations to an extreme environment: Retinal organisation and spectral properties of photoreceptors in Antarctic notothenioid fish

Marie A. Pointer, Chi Hing Christina Cheng, James K. Bowmaker, Juliet W.L. Parry, Nelyn Soto, Glen Jeffery, Jill A. Cowing, David M. Hunt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Notothenioid suborder of teleosts comprises a number of species that live below the sea ice of the Antarctic. The presence of 'antifreeze' glycoproteins in these fish as an adaptation to freezing temperature has been well documented but little is known about the adaptations of the visual system of these fish to a light environment in which both the quantity and spectral composition of downwelling sunlight has been reduced by passage through ice and snow. In this study, we show that the red/long-wave sensitive (LWS) opsin gene is not present in these fish but a UV-sensitive short-wave sensitive (SWS1) pigment is expressed along with blue-sensitive (SWS2) and green/middle-wave sensitive (Rh2) pigments. The identity and spectral location of maximal absorbance of the SWS1 and Rh2 pigments was confirmed by in vitro expression of the recombinant opsins followed by regeneration with 11-cis retinal. Only the SWS2 pigment showed interspecific variations in peak absorbance. Expression of the Rh2 opsin is localised to double cone receptors in both the central and peripheral retina, whereas SWS2 opsin expression is present only in the peripheral retina. SWS1 cones could not be identified by either microspectrophotometry or in situ hybridisation, presumably reflecting their low number and/or uneven distribution across the retina. A study of photoreceptor organisation in the retina of two species, the shallower dwelling Trematomus hansoni and the deeper dwelling Dissostichus mawsoni, identified a square mosaic in the former, and a row mosaic in the latter species; the row mosaic in Dissostichus mawsoni with less tightly packed cone photoreceptors allows for a higher rod photoreceptor density.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2363-2376
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 2005


  • Icefish
  • Photoreceptor
  • Retina
  • Visual pigment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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