Simply by inserting a piece of DNA that codes for a human eye pigment into the genome of a mouse, scientists have introduced a rainbow array of colour to the dull mix of yellows, blues and greys that normally make up a mouse’s visual world. This suggests that the mammalian brain is very flexible and can interpret signals not normally encountered. It also hints that just a single genetic mutation could have added reds and greens to the visual palette of our ancestors tens of millions of years ago.
Gerald Jacobs from the University of California in Santa Barbara and his colleagues have genetically engineered mice with a human pigment in their eye as well as the normal mouse pigments and shown that this does appear to give the mice the ability to see colours they could not see before. “The implications are astounding,” says David Williams, an expert in vision at the University of Rochester in New York state. “It’s stunning to think the rest of the nervous system in the mouse has developed to be able to process the new information.”