Eye-Opening Insights Into Human and Insect Vision

Summary: Researchers unveiled significant findings on the production of 11-cis-retinal, a molecule crucial for vision in both humans and insects. By studying the NinaB protein in insects and comparing it to the human RPE65 protein, both essential for synthesizing 11-cis-retinal, the team discovered key differences in their operational mechanisms despite their structural similarities.

This research not only challenges previous notions about the parallels between human and insect vision but also provides crucial insights into retinal diseases, particularly Leber congenital amaurosis. Through X-ray crystallography, the study sheds light on the unique processes underlying 11-cis-retinal production, offering potential pathways for addressing genetic mutations that impair vision.

Key Facts:

  1. Structural Similarities with Functional Differences: Despite the structural resemblance between NinaB in insects and RPE65 in humans, their processes for producing 11-cis-retinal differ significantly.
  2. Insights into Retinal Diseases: The study enhances understanding of the genetic basis of retinal diseases like Leber congenital amaurosis by revealing how mutations in RPE65 disrupt vision.
  3. Advancements in Vision Research: By elucidating the structure and function of NinaB, researchers gained insights into RPE65, opening new avenues for treating vision impairment caused by genetic mutations.

Source: UC Irvine

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine have discovered profound similarities and surprising differences between humans and insects in the production of the critical light-absorbing molecule of the retina, 11-cis-retinal, also known as the “visual chromophore.”

The findings deepen understanding of how mutations in the RPE65 enzyme cause retinal diseases, especially Leber congenital amaurosis, a devastating childhood blinding disease.

This shows an eye.
Creation of 11-cis-retinal begins with the consumption of foods like carrots or pumpkins containing compounds used for vitamin A generation, such as beta-carotene. Credit: Neuroscience News

For the study, recently published online in the journal Nature Chemical Biology, the team used X-ray crystallography to study NinaB, a protein found in insects that functions similarly to the RPE65 protein found in humans. Both are crucial for synthesis of 11-cis-retinal, and their absence results in severe visual impairment.

“Our study challenges traditional assumptions about the similarities and differences of human and insect vision,” said corresponding author Philip Kiser, UCI associate professor of physiology & biophysics as well as ophthalmology.

“While these enzymes share a common evolutionary origin and three-dimensional architecture, we found that the process by which they produce 11-cis-retinal is distinct.”

Creation of 11-cis-retinal begins with the consumption of foods like carrots or pumpkins containing compounds used for vitamin A generation, such as beta-carotene. These nutrients are metabolized by carotenoid cleavage enzymes, including NinaB and RPE65.

It was previously known that humans require two of these enzymes to produce 11-cis-retinal from beta-carotene, whereas insects can achieve the conversion with just NinaB. Gaining insight into how NinaB can couple the two steps into a single reaction along with the functional relationships between NinaB and RPE65 was a key motivation for the study.

“We found that structurally, these enzymes are very much alike, but the locations in which they perform their activity are different,” said lead author Yasmeen Solano, a graduate student in Kiser’s laboratory at the UCI Center for Translational Vision Research.

“Understanding key features within the NinaB structure has led to an enhanced understanding of the catalytic machinery necessary to support the function of the retinal visual pigments.

“Through our study of NinaB, we were able to learn about the structure of a key portion of RPE65 that had not previously been resolved. This discovery is vital in understanding and addressing loss-of-function mutations in RPE65.”

Other team members included Michael Everett, a junior specialist in the Kiser lab, and Kelly Dang and Jude Abueg, biological sciences undergraduates at the time.

Funding: This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant CHE-2107713, the Department of Veterans Affairs under grant BX004939 and the National Institutes of Health under grant EY034519-01S1.

About this visual neuroscience research news

Author: Patricia Harriman
Source: UC Irvine
Contact: Patricia Harriman – UC Irvine
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Carotenoid cleavage enzymes evolved convergently to generate the visual chromophore” by Philip Kiser et al. Nature Chemical Biology


Carotenoid cleavage enzymes evolved convergently to generate the visual chromophore

The retinal light response in animals originates from the photoisomerization of an opsin-coupled 11-cis-retinaldehyde chromophore. This visual chromophore is enzymatically produced through the action of carotenoid cleavage dioxygenases.

Vertebrates require two carotenoid cleavage dioxygenases, β-carotene oxygenase 1 and retinal pigment epithelium 65 (RPE65), to form 11-cis-retinaldehyde from carotenoid substrates, whereas invertebrates such as insects use a single enzyme known as Neither Inactivation Nor Afterpotential B (NinaB). RPE65 and NinaB couple trans–cis isomerization with hydrolysis and oxygenation, respectively, but the mechanistic relationship of their isomerase activities remains unknown.

Here we report the structure of NinaB, revealing details of its active site architecture and mode of membrane binding. Structure-guided mutagenesis studies identify a residue cluster deep within the NinaB substrate-binding cleft that controls its isomerization activity.

Our data demonstrate that isomerization activity is mediated by distinct active site regions in NinaB and RPE65—an evolutionary convergence that deepens our understanding of visual system diversity.

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