Vision in microalgae
Flagellate green algae such as Chlamydomonas and related genera are guided by their eyes to places where light conditions are optimal for photosynthetic growth. These eyes constitute the simplest and most common visual system found in nature. The eyes contain optics, photoreceptors and the elementary components of a signal-transduction chain. Rhodopsin serves as the photoreceptor, as it does in animal vision. Upon light stimulation, its all-trans-retinal chromophore isomerizes into 13-cis and activates a photoreceptor channel which leads to a rapid Ca2+ influx into the eyespot region. At low light levels, the depolarization activates small flagellar currents which induce in both flagella small but slightly different beating changes resulting in distinct directional changes. In continuous light, Ca2+ fluxes serve as the molecular basis for phototaxis. In response to flashes of higher energy the larger photoreceptor currents trigger a massive Ca2+ influx into the flagella which causes the well-known phobic response. The identification of proteins contributing to this signalling system has just begun with the isolation and cloning of the opsins from Chlamydomonas and Volvox. These plant opsins are highly charged, are not typical seven-helix receptors, and are believed to form a protein complex with the photoreceptor channel. In Spermatozopsis, a G-protein has been found which interacts either directly with the rhodopsin or with the rhodopsin-ion channel complex. By using insertional mutagenesis, genes coding for proteins that are involved in signalling have been tagged. One of them is connected to the flagellar channel and crucial for the flagellar action potential. Elucidation of photoreception in flagellated algae will provide deeper insight into the development of visual systems, starting from single-celled organisms and moving up through higher animals.