Changes in the genes encoding sensory receptor proteins are an essential step in the evolution of new sensory capacities. In primates, trichromatic color vision evolved after changes in X chromosome-linked photopigment genes. To model this process, we studied knock-in mice that expressed a human long-wavelength-sensitive (L) cone photopigment in the form of an X-linked polymorphism. Behavioral tests demonstrated that heterozygous females, whose retinas contained both native mouse pigments and human L pigment, showed enhanced long-wavelength sensitivity and acquired a new capacity for chromatic discrimination. An inherent plasticity in the mammalian visual system thus permits the emergence of a new dimension of sensory experience based solely on gene-driven changes in receptor organization.
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