Mice See New Hue With Added Gene

Providing a kaleidoscopic upgrade to creatures that are largely colorblind, scientists have endowed mice with a human gene that allows the rodents to see the world in full Technicolor splendor.

The advance, which relied on imaginative tests to confirm that the mice can perceive all the hues that people see, helps resolve a long-standing debate about how color vision arose in human ancestors tens of millions of years ago. That seminal event brought a host of practical advantages, such as the ability to spot ripe fruit, and unveiled new aesthetic pleasures — autumn foliage, magenta sunsets and the blush of a potential mate, among them.

The work also points to the possibility of curing some of the millions of colorblind Americans — and even enhancing the vision of healthy people, allowing them to experience a richer palette than is possible with standard-issue eyes.

“It opens up huge doors to understanding how color vision evolved and where it can go,” said Brian C. Verrelli, an evolutionary geneticist who studies color vision at Arizona State University and was not involved in the work, published today in the journal Science.

Mice, like most mammals, have limited color perception, equivalent to that of people with red-green color blindness. Their eyes have two kinds of color detectors, or “cone” cells, each sensitive to a different part of the spectrum.

Unable to differentiate between reds and greens, they see the world as a blend of blues and yellows, with gray overlays added by black-and-white-registering “rod” cells.

By contrast, most people — along with Old World primates and South and Central American female monkeys — have three kinds of cones. That gives birth to the vibrant world of reds and a vast repertoire of related colors.

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