Research article

The molecular basis for UV vision in birds: spectral characteristics, cDNA sequence and retinal localization of the UV-sensitive visual pigment of the budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus)

E. Susan WILKIE, Peter M. A. M. VISSERS, Debipriya DAS, J. Willem DeGRIP, K. James BOWMAKER, M. David HUNT


Microspectrophotometric (msp) studies have shown that the colour-vision system of many bird species is based on four pigments with absorption peaks in the red, green, blue and UV regions of the spectrum. The existence of a fourth pigment (UV) is the major difference between the trichromacy of humans and the tetrachromacy of such birds, and recent studies have shown that it may play a determining role in such diverse aspects of behaviour as mate selection and detection of food. Avian visual pigments are composed of an opsin protein covalently bound via a Schiff-base linkage to the chromophore 11-cis-retinal. Here we report the cDNA sequence of a UV opsin isolated from an avian species, Melopsittacus undulatus (budgerigar or small parakeet). This sequence has been expressed using the recombinant baculovirus system; the pigment generated from the expressed protein on addition of 11-cis-retinal yielded an absorption spectrum typical of a UV photopigment, with λmax 365±3 nm. This is the first UV opsin from an avian species to be sequenced and expressed in a heterologous system. In situ hybridization of this sequence to budgerigar retinas selectively labelled a sub-set of UV cones, representing approx. 9% of the total cone population, that are distributed in a semi-regular pattern across the entire retina.