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It's All in the Eyes

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  • Title: Associate Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine
  • Education: PhD, Harvard University, 1999
  • Recommended by: Marcie McClure

Adriana Briscoe has spent the past 10 years looking into eyes — of butterflies, that is. Briscoe looks at the genes encoding visual pigments in the photoreceptor cells of butterfly eyes and has shown that much of the diversity of butterfly wing color can, in fact, be attributed to variability in what colors these pigments are sensitive to.

"My lab is studying the evolution and functional genomics of butterfly color vision," she says. "We're trying to understand how butterflies see the world, and what forces, natural or sexual selection, have shaped the evolution of their eyes." To that end, she employs a range of tools, from DNA sequencing to gene expression profiling using in situ hybridization to phylogenetic computational analysis. Briscoe uses transgenic Drosophila to express butterfly visual pigments in photoreceptor cells.

As a grad student at Harvard, Briscoe says, "I had this intuition that the eyes of butterflies might be as diverse, evolutionarily, as the color of their wings. But at the time, no one knew anything about the molecular basis of vision." So Briscoe went on a mission to find out, publishing one of the first papers on the cloning of a visual pigment in the swallowtail butterfly. "I discovered that this particular species of butterfly had more rhodopsin genes than were expected based on the physiological studies that had been published," she says.

During her postdoc, she began to spatially map the expression patterns of these duplicate genes, some of which were co-expressed in different receptor cells, overturning the idea of what had been previously thought to be a one gene-one receptor pattern of expression. Since then, she's looked at butterflies from all of the five major families, "and they all have different visual systems based on the photoreceptors that are present in their eyes," she says. "They literally see the world through different eyes."

Because her current approach is to integrate many levels of biological analysis, she says, her biggest challenge is in the area of protein biochemistry. "We have moved into the area of protein biochemistry, and my proteins of interest, invertebrate rhodopsin-based photoreceptors, are notoriously tricky to express and functionally characterize," she says. "That's what I spend most of my time agonizing over."

Looking ahead

Briscoe hopes to see the field advance not just technically, but in terms of increased collaborations. "I would like to see more work in our field integrating population genetics, molecular evolution, protein biochemistry, neurophysiology, computational modeling, and behavior linking the visual worlds of animals to their predators, and in particular, linking biologically relevant signals to observers," she says.

Publications of note

In a paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2006, Briscoe and colleagues found that males and females of one species of butterfly have two distinct sets of receptors. "[They] literally have different eyes, [and] these eyes are unique compared to other butterflies," she says. They found that in the lycaenid butterfly, a species with sexually dimorphic wings, males have a dorsal eye with only UV- and blue-sensitive pigments, while dorsal eyes of females have an additional third pigment that is sensitive to long wavelengths and is co-expressed with blue-sensitive pigments. This increased visual capacity has likely driven the diversity of butterfly wing coloration, Briscoe believes.

And the Nobel goes to …

As for the Nobel, Briscoe would veer off and hope to win it for "a totally unrelated topic, curing schizophrenia, something that actually would really help people," she says.

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