Relative LWS cone opsin expression determines optomotor thresholds in Malawi cichlid fish

A. R. Smith, K. Ma, D. Soares, K. L. Carleton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Associating quantitative genetic traits with quantitative behaviors is a relatively unexplored region of sensory neurobiology. The visual system is an ideal place to test models associating these levels of sensory perception. In this study, we reared cichlid fish from Lake Malawi in different ambient light environments. We then tested the visual sensitivities of these fish using the optomotor response (OMR) behavioral paradigm and measured the relative expression of cone opsin genes. We found that the light environment experienced by fish during development can alter gene expression, particularly as it applies to the long wavelength-sensitive (LWS) opsin gene. Also, fish from different rearing conditions exhibited different behavioral sensitivities. We combined these data with predictions of opsin pigment absorption by the different OMR stimuli to determine which cone types are most likely to influence the OMR behavior. While we hypothesized that this behavior would be controlled by a random-wiring model reflecting the expression of both medium wavelength-sensitive (MWS) and LWS opsins, our models suggest that only the LWS pigment is required to predict behavior. Furthermore, analyses show that LWS expression variation accounts for ∼20% of the observed behavioral variance. This work confirms that sensory gene expression influences behavior in a predictable fashion. It also suggests that the neural wiring of basal visual pathways in cichlid fish may differ from that observed in mammals and zebrafish, but is similar to that described in goldfish. This finding has important implications for the evolution of the magnocellular neural pathway in teleosts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)185-192
Number of pages8
JournalGenes, Brain and Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Neurology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Behavior
  • Cichlid
  • Gene expression
  • Magnocellular
  • Opsin
  • Optomotor


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