Open Access Research article

A system-level, molecular evolutionary analysis of mammalian phototransduction

Brandon M Invergo, Ludovica Montanucci*, Hafid Laayouni and Jaume Bertranpetit

Author Affiliations

Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra), CEXS-UPF-PRBB, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:52  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-52

Published: 23 February 2013



Visual perception is initiated in the photoreceptor cells of the retina via the phototransduction system. This system has shown marked evolution during mammalian divergence in such complex attributes as activation time and recovery time. We have performed a molecular evolutionary analysis of proteins involved in mammalian phototransduction in order to unravel how the action of natural selection has been distributed throughout the system to evolve such traits.


We found selective pressures to be non-randomly distributed according to both a simple protein classification scheme and a protein-interaction network representation of the signaling pathway. Proteins which are topologically central in the signaling pathway, such as the G proteins, as well as retinoid cycle chaperones and proteins involved in photoreceptor cell-type determination, were found to be more constrained in their evolution. Proteins peripheral to the pathway, such as ion channels and exchangers, as well as the retinoid cycle enzymes, have experienced a relaxation of selective pressures. Furthermore, signals of positive selection were detected in two genes: the short-wave (blue) opsin (OPN1SW) in hominids and the rod-specific Na+/ Ca2+, K+ ion exchanger (SLC24A1) in rodents.


The functions of the proteins involved in phototransduction and the topology of the interactions between them have imposed non-random constraints on their evolution. Thus, in shaping or conserving system-level phototransduction traits, natural selection has targeted the underlying proteins in a concerted manner.