Zebrafish larvae without eyes or pineal glands can still respond to light using photopigments located deep within their brains. Published today (September 20) in Current Biology, the findings are the first to link opsins, photoreceptors located in the hypothalamus and other brain areas, to increased swimming in response to darkness, a behavior researchers hypothesize may help the fish move toward better-lit environments.
“[It’s a] strong demonstration that opsin-dependent photoreceptors in deep brain areas affect behaviors,” said Samer Hattar, who studies light reception in mammals at Johns Hopkins University but did not participate in the research.
Photoreceptors in eyes enable vision, and photoreceptors in the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland located in the center of the vertebrate brain, regulate circadian rhythms. But photoreceptors are also found in other brain areas of both invertebrates and vertebrate lineages. The function of these extraocular photoreceptors has been best studied in birds, where they regulate seasonal reproduction, explained Harold Burgess, a behavioral neurogeneticist at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.
Many opsins have been reported in the brains of tiny and transparent larval zebrafish, raising the possibility that light could be stimulating the photoreceptors even deep in the brain. To test for behaviors that may be regulated by deep brain photoreceptors, Burgess and his colleagues in Wolfgang Driever’s lab at the University of Freiburg removed the eyes of zebrafish larvae, and compared their behavior to larvae that retained their eyes. Although most light-dependent behavior required eyes, the eyeless larvae did respond when the lights were turned off, increasing their activity for a several minutes, though to a somewhat lesser extent than control larvae. But the fact that they responded at all suggests that non-retinal photoreceptors contributed to the behavior.
To confirm the role of the deep brain photoreceptors, the researchers also tested eyeless larvae that had been genetically modified to block expression of photoreceptors in the pineal gland. This fish still showed this jump in activity for several minutes after entering darkness.
Two different types of opsins—melanopsin and multiple tissue opsin—are expressed in the same type of neuron in zebrafish hypothalamus. Burgess and his colleagues looked at zebrafish missing the transcription factor Orthopedia, which is unique to these neurons, and found that the darkness-induced activity boost is nearly absent in these fish. To further narrow the search for the responsible photoreceptors, the researchers overexpressed melanopsin in hypothalamus neurons that co-express Orthopedia and melanopsin, and found that it increased the sensitivity of eyeless zebrafish to reductions in light. The results point to both melanopsin and Orthopedia as key players in modulating this behavior and pinpoint the location to neurons that coexpress these factors in the zebrafish hypothalamus.
Interestingly, the hypothalamus is one of the oldest parts of the vertebrate brain, said Detlev Arendt, a developmental biologist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. “It’s very possible that this is one of the oldest functions”—one that evolved in “non-visual organisms” that had no eyes but still needed to sense light.
Although not as directed and efficient as eye-dependent behaviors that help fish swim toward light, Burgess speculates that deep brain opsins can still benefit zebrafish larvae. “You could imagine situation where it can’t see light, if a leaf falls on it and it doesn’t know where to swim. I think this behavior puts it in a hyperactive state where it swims wildly for several minutes until it reaches enough light for eyes to take over,” he explained, noting that such behavior is common in invertebrates.
It remains to be seen whether these deep brain opsins regulate other behaviors, perhaps in similar fashion to seasonal hormonal regulation in birds, but Hattar believes it is likely. “It’s beyond reasonable doubt there are many functions for these deep brain photoreceptors.”
A. M. Fernandes et al., “Deep brain photoreceptors control light-seeking behavior in zebrafish larvae,” Current Biology, 22:1-6, 2012.