, Volume 825, Issue 1, pp 159–175 | Cite as

Phylogenetic annotation and genomic architecture of opsin genes in Crustacea

  • Jorge L. Pérez-MorenoEmail author
  • Danielle M. DeLeo
  • Ferran Palero
  • Heather D. Bracken-Grissom


A major goal of evolutionary biology is to understand the role of adaptive processes on sensory systems. Visual capabilities are strongly influenced by environmental and ecological conditions, and the evolutionary advantages of vision are manifest by its complexity and ubiquity throughout Metazoa. Crustaceans occupy a vast array of habitats and ecological niches, and are thus ideal taxa to investigate the evolution of visual systems. A comparative approach is taken here for efficient identification and classification of opsin genes, photoreceptive pigment proteins involved in color vision, focusing on two crustacean model organisms: Hyalella azteca and Daphnia pulex. Transcriptomes of both species were assembled de novo to elucidate the diversity and function of expressed opsins within a robust phylogenetic context. For this purpose, we developed a modified version of the Phylogenetically Informed Annotation tool’s pipeline to filter and identify visual genes from transcriptomes in a scalable and efficient manner. In addition, reference genomes of these species were used to validate our pipeline while characterizing the genomic architecture of the opsin genes. Next-generation sequencing and phylogenetics provide future venues for the study of sensory systems, adaptation, and evolution in model and nonmodel organisms.


Evolution Phototransduction Protein RNAseq Transcriptomics Vision 


Opsins are photoreceptor molecules that play a crucial role in animal vision and can be found across metazoans (Terakita, 2005). As membrane-associated, G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), opsins can function in both visual and nonvisual phototransduction, and in some instances as photoisomerases (Shichida & Matsuyama, 2009). Previous studies have classified opsins in three primary categories according to the type of G-protein to which they couple namely, “ciliary” (c-opsins), “rhabdomeric” (r-opsins), and RGR/Go opsins (Terakita, 2005; Feuda et al., 2014, 2016). Ciliary and rhabdomeric opsins diversified prior to the protostome-deuterostome split and are found in both invertebrates and vertebrates, which suggests that they co-occurred in a common ancestor (Kojima et al., 1997; Shichida & Matsuyama, 2009; Hering & Mayer, 2014; Ramirez et al., 2016). Opsin categories can additionally be further subdivided into subfamilies based on molecular phylogenetics and functional classifications (Terakita, 2005). These subfamilies share less than 20 percent amino acid identity (Fryxel & Meyerowitz, 1991) and comprise c-opsins (visual and nonvisual); tmt/encephalopsins; r-opsins; melanopsins; and photoisomerases/neuropsins. Photoreceptive opsins can be of either the ciliary-type, found largely in vertebrates (for exceptions see Arendt et al., 2004; Passamaneck et al., 2011; Bok et al., 2017; Tsukamoto et al., 2017), or the rhabdomeric-type found in mollusks, annelids, and the compound eyes of arthropods (Arendt et al., 2002; Shichida & Matsuyama, 2009; Gühmann et al., 2015), with the last being the focus of the present study.

Opsins form visual pigments capable of absorbing photons when bound to a chromophore, generally a vitamin A1 derivative (11-cis retinal). These visual pigments trigger conformational changes that activate G-proteins (Nathans, 1987) and elicit phototransduction signaling cascades. Key biological processes such as the regulation of circadian clocks, phototaxis, and vision have been shown to be linked to the phototransduction cascade (e.g., Arendt et al., 2004; review Shichida & Matsuyama, 2009). The set of amino acid residues that interact with the chromophore produce an environment suitable for the absorption of light with distinct wavelengths (Imai et al., 1997; Kuwayama et al., 2002) and thus influence spectral tuning (e.g., Porter et al., 2007; Katti et al., 2010). As the absorption spectrum of the photopigment is influenced by the amino acid composition of the opsin protein, slight variations can alter its physical and chemical properties and lead to visual pigments maximally sensitive to different wavelengths of light. This in turn would allow organisms to perceive and distinguish between lights of particular wavelengths. The direct association between amino acid composition of photoreceptive opsins and their spectral sensitivity make them amenable to functional classification by sequence analysis (Mirzadegan et al., 2003; Matsumoto & Ishibashi, 2016).

Three main approaches have been employed to characterize opsins from transcriptomic data: (I) Sequence similarity searches via pairwise alignments (i.e., BLAST); (II) Protein structure prediction through Hidden Markov Model (HMM) profile alignments; and (III) Phylogenetic inference. Functional annotation by means of sequence similarity is typically based on heuristic algorithms that search for matching nucleotide and/or amino acid sequences in curated databases (e.g., BLAST; Altschul et al., 1990). Sequences are locally or globally aligned and subsequently annotated based on inferred homology with statistically significant matches (Pearson, 2013). These comparisons, however, can rapidly become computationally expensive as the number of query and/or reference sequences increases (Suzuki et al., 2012). Although similarity searches via pairwise alignments are capable of identifying homologous sequences, their shortcomings are notorious when the queries consist of protein families with low sequence similarities, as is the case for opsins and other GPCRs (Pearson, 2013). Hidden Markov Model (HMM) methods offer an enticing alternative to pairwise alignments at similar computational costs (Eddy, 2011; Pearson, 2013). HMM profiles can also contain relevant information regarding protein structure, which translates to more accurate identification, classification, and annotation of proteins even when overall sequence similarity is low (Krogh et al., 1994; Yoon, 2009; Pearson, 2013). However, the efficacy of HMMs is intrinsically dependent on the quality of the training data, which is a nontrivial process in the case of understudied taxa or protein families (Rasmussen & Krink, 2003; Pearson, 2013). Therefore, the use of HMMs for annotation of GPCRs is hindered when independently verified sequences are not readily available. The robustness and suitability of phylogenetic approaches for functional annotation of opsins (and other proteins) is unparalleled, as it can readily overcome many of the deficiencies of other homology-based methodologies (Engelhardt et al., 2009; Gaudet et al., 2011; Speiser et al., 2014). The placement of proteins on a phylogenetic tree not only enables a rapid assessment of homology and efficient discrimination of false positives, but also allows for the inference of putative functions and roles within an evolutionary context (Engelhardt et al., 2009). This approach has been successful in classifying novel opsins (and other GPCRs) despite their characteristic low sequence similarities and, in the case of nonmodel organisms, scarce genomic resources (Porter et al., 2007, 2012; Speiser et al., 2014). The main drawbacks of phylogenetic reconstruction as an efficient functional annotation method are possible difficulties aligning distantly related sequences, its propensity to be time-consuming (obtaining adequate references, computation of trees, etc.) and the steep learning curve to master these analyses, which might result in subjectivity and misinterpretations (Crisp & Cook, 2005).

Efforts to characterize opsins from high-throughput sequencing data in nonmodel Crustacea have primarily focused on transcriptomes, but without genomic validation (Porter et al., 2013; Wong et al., 2015; Biscontin et al., 2016). When available, genomes can provide valuable information regarding opsin gene duplication in an organism, as well as the relative locations of those genes. Gene locations allow for intra- and interspecific comparisons (Nordström et al., 2004) and to make inferences about the evolutionary history of opsin diversification (review Shichida & Matsuyama, 2009).

In this study, we modified the Phylogenetically Informed Annotation (PIA) tool’s pipeline (Speiser et al., 2014) to conduct a robust and scalable phylogenetic annotation of visual opsins from transcriptomes of two crustacean model organisms, Hyalella azteca (Saussure, 1858) and Daphnia pulex Leydig, 1860. Hyalella azteca is a freshwater epibenthic amphipod, commonly used as a bioindicator species, which has one pair of pigmented compound eyes (Gonzalez & Watling, 2002). Daphnia pulex is a freshwater cladoceran that has a single but movable cyclopean, compound, and pigmented eye. Specifically, we made modifications for PIA to run on the command-line rather than on Galaxy’s GUI and wrote wrapper scripts to facilitate the analyses. This resulted in a scalable and automated platform to annotate visual genes and pathways, while minimizing possible biases and subjectivity from manual curation. As genomes are available for both species, they were used to validate the annotations and make inferences about the genomic architecture and the opsin intron–exon gene structure within these species.


Data, quality control, and transcriptome assembly

Raw RNA sequencing data of the freshwater amphipod H. azteca and the model branchiopod D. pulex were downloaded from the NCBI’s Sequence Read Archive (SRA). In order to facilitate de novo transcriptome assembly and accurate detection of complete opsin isoforms, the read files were trimmed taking into consideration factors such as length and quality of the sequencing reads, sequencing depth, and tissue type (Table 1).
Table 1

Raw data chosen for de novo transcriptome assembly and annotation of opsin proteins in Hyalella azteca and Daphnia pulex




Read lengths

Sequencing platform

Tissue type

SRA BioProject

Hyalella azteca



2 × 150 bp

Illumina HiSeq

Whole organism


Daphnia pulex




Prior to the assembly process, quality of the raw sequencing reads was evaluated via FastQC (Andrews, 2010). The FastQC output was subsequently used to inform stringent quality and adaptor trimming with Trimmomatic 0.36 (parameters: “ILLUMINACLIP:TruSeq 3-PE.fa:2:30:10 CROP:140 HEADCROP:20 LEADING:15 TRAILING:15 SLIDINGWINDOW:4:20 MINLEN:36”; Bolger et al., 2014). Clean sequencing reads were then assembled into a de novo transcriptome with the Trinity pipeline (version 2.5.0; Grabherr et al., 2011; Haas et al., 2013) using default parameters, a minimum contig length of 200 bp, and a kmer size of 23. Assembly summary statistics were calculated using Transrate 1.0.3 (Smith-Unna et al., 2016). BUSCO 3.0.2 (Benchmarking Universal Single-Copy Orthologs; Simão et al., 2015) was employed to assess the quality and completeness of the resulting transcriptomes. The latter method provides an accurate evaluation of transcriptomes in an evolutionary informed context by assessing the presence and completeness of universal single-copy orthologs (Simão et al., 2015). BUSCO analyses were conducted with the Arthropoda database of orthologous groups (n = 1066) sourced from OrthoDB (Waterhouse et al., 2013).

Identification and annotation of crustacean opsins

Identification and functional classification of putative opsin transcripts was achieved through the use of our modified version of the existing PIA tool (Speiser et al., 2014). While phylogenetic confirmation of BLAST similarity hits is becoming routine in model systems, PIA allows for the identification of proteins involved in visual pathways for nonmodel organisms in a computationally efficient manner (Speiser et al., 2014). This informative tool places putative visual gene transcripts (e.g., opsins), previously identified via BLAST searches against a custom database, in precomputed phylogenies of such genes. The resulting phylogenies can then be used to discriminate BLAST false positives and/or paralogous sequences from the transcripts of interest. While PIA has been used in previous studies to annotate genes in a phylogenetic context, it was originally designed as a workflow for the Galaxy Project (Afgan et al., 2016) and as such is dependent on a Graphical User Interface (Speiser et al., 2014). This workflow can become inefficient when conducting concurrent analyses of numerous transcriptomes. Further, curation of the phylogenetic gene trees produced by PIA for each input transcriptome is typically undertaken manually, which inevitably makes it sensitive to potential biases. Tree branch length cutoff values for a given gene (i.e., opsins) can, however, be determined empirically through a series of manual tree curation comparisons. The pipeline presented here is a modification to PIA’s pipeline in which the authors wrote a wrapper script to enable its use as a command-line/automated workflow, which effectively increases its scalability allowing for the identification of visual opsins from multiple transcriptomic datasets through simple scripting. Although the pipeline was designed for analyses of visual pathways, it is possible to create custom databases and phylogenies for other genes/pathways. We refer the reader to the original publication of PIA for additional information regarding included genes and pathways (Speiser et al., 2014). The modified Phylogenetically Informed Annotation pipeline employed in this study, along with usage examples, will be made available at:

Once the transcriptome assembly was completed, our de novo assemblies were scanned with Biopython’s script (Cock et al., 2009) to translate each transcript into its corresponding amino acid sequence. Open Reading Frames (ORFs) were then extracted via the same script to facilitate the PIA annotation process. After conclusion of PIA’s main component (BLAST, MAFFT alignment, and phylogenetic placement via RAxML; Altschul et al., 1990; Stamatakis, 2014; Yamada et al., 2016), a script adapted from the Osiris Phylogenetics toolkit (; Oakley et al., 2014) was used to identify transcripts that exceeded 4 × the Mean Absolute Deviation of the tree’s branch lengths. This simple threshold proved effective at removing spurious BLAST hits in an unbiased manner. Subsequently, the previously identified false positives were pruned from our phytab-formatted hit-list (part of PIA’s output) with the script, also adapted from Osiris (Oakley et al., 2014). The resulting list of putative opsins was then converted to FASTA format, and sequence redundancy was reduced by removing identical protein sequences with UCLUST (Edgar, 2010). The multiple sequence aligner MAFFT (Yamada et al., 2016) was then invoked to align our filtered putative opsins to a large opsin dataset (n = 910) compiled by the Porter Lab (University of Hawaii at Manoa), which includes representatives of the main opsin subfamilies. MAFFT alignment parameters were chosen to prioritize accuracy over speed and to allow for large unalignable regions that can be pervasive with divergent GPCRs (“–ep 0genafpairmaxiterate 1000”). Following the alignment procedure, a final phylogenetic reconstruction was undertaken with IQ-tree (Nguyen et al., 2015) for characterization and annotation of our PIA-identified putative opsins. IQ-tree compares favorably to alternatives (e.g., RAxML, FastTree, etc.) in recent benchmarks (Zhou et al., 2017), while also providing a more extensive choice of evolutionary models for phylogenetic inference. After proper consideration, IQ-tree was selected given that evolutionary model choice is important, and its choice would be limited in alternative software. Choosing an appropriate model is especially relevant when inferring phylogenetic relationships in protein families with both highly conserved domains and hypervariable regions (e.g., opsins). The IQ-tree analysis was run with a LG general amino acid replacement matrix under a FreeRate model with 10 rate categories and empirical base frequencies (LG + R10 + F; Le & Gascuel, 2008; Soubrier et al., 2012) as suggested by ModelFinder (Kalyaanamoorthy et al., 2017). Branch support was assessed in tripartite by Ultra-fast bootstrap approximation (UFBoot; 10,000 replicates), a Shimodaira–Hasegawa–like approximate likelihood ratio test (SH-aLRT; 10,000 replicates), and an approximate Bayes test (Guindon et al., 2010; Anisimova et al., 2011; Minh et al., 2013).

Finally, the tool HHBlits ‘HMM-HMM–based lightning-fast iterative sequence search’ (Remmert et al., 2012) was used to confirm opsin identity based on profile HMMs using Uniclust30 (Mirdita et al., 2017) as the reference database. HHBlits was chosen as it incorporates highly sensitive sequence search methods (HMMs) in a fast, and more accurate manner compared to other sequence search tools like PSI-BLAST (Remmert et al., 2012).

Genomic Architecture of Annotated Opsins

Proteins encoded in the transcriptomes analyzed may not have corresponding annotations in public databases. Therefore, to validate our pipeline, the exon–intron architecture of the opsin genes obtained from transcriptomic data (see above) was annotated de novo using the recently assembled genomes of H. azteca (GCA_000764305.2; accession date: 20-07-2017) and D. pulex (GCA_000187875.1; accessed on 20-07-2017). The Benchmarking set of Universal Single-Copy Orthologs (BUSCO version 3; Simão et al., 2015) was used to ensure an adequate completeness of the genomes used for transcriptome/genome comparison. BUSCO provides quantitative measures for the assessment of genome assembly based on evolutionarily informed expectations of gene content from near-universal single-copy orthologs selected from OrthoDB v9. The tblastn algorithm v2.2.29 + was then used with default parameters in order to discriminate between exonic and intronic regions along the genomic scaffolds. When a significant blast hit was found (similarity > 80%; e value < 10−8), the corresponding genomic region was annotated as exonic, or protein coding/expressed region. DNA regions located between two consecutive exons in the same genomic scaffold (chromosome) but with no corresponding counterpart in the expressed RNA were considered as introns. In addition, the nucleotide coding sequence of each putative opsin was mapped to their respective genomes using the spliced aligner HISAT2 (Kim et al., 2010). The mapping was done without penalties for noncanonical splicing using the following command and arguments: “hisat2 -f -x index input.cds.fastascore-min L,0,-4pen-noncansplice 3 -S output.sam”. Plots of the gene architecture and the exon length distribution were subsequently completed using the Integrated Genome Browser (Freese et al., 2016) and the software package Mathematica v.11.1 (Wolfram Inc., USA).


Hyalella azteca’s transcriptome assembly recovered 243,398 contigs with a mean sequence length of 1033.04 base pairs (Table 2). Of these, 61,401 sequences contained Open Reading Frames (ORFs) designating them as putative protein-coding genes. Similarly, our de novo transcriptome for D. pulex was comprised of 187,310 contigs with a mean sequence length of 848.76, and 38,157 sequences with ORFs. Additional metrics for our de novo transcriptomes, as well as for the reference genomes, are given in Table 2.
Table 2

Summary statistics for the de novo transcriptome assemblies produced as part of this study and the corresponding genome assemblies


Hyalella azteca

Daphnia pulex






Number of sequences/contigs





Longest sequence/contig (bp)





Number of bases





Mean transcript/contig length (bp)





Number of transcripts/contigs > 1000 bp long





Number of transcripts/contigs > 10000 bp long





Number of transcripts with ORFs





Mean ORF percent




















GC content





Completeness assessment of our de novo transcriptomes by Benchmarking Universal Single-Copy Orthologs (BUSCO) was favorable for both species. In H. azteca, we were able to find 990 (92.48%) complete sequences of the 1,066 arthropod genes used for benchmarking. An additional 49 (4.6%) were also present as fragmented sequences, and only 27 (2.6%) were not found. Similarly, D. pulex’s transcriptome was found to be nearly complete with 1,048 (98.4%) full-length BUSCO genes, 16 (1.5%) fragmented, and a marginal 2 (0.1%) missing. The reference genomes selected for validation were rather complete as well, with over 90% of the BUSCO genes being found complete. Interestingly, the proportion of missing BUSCOs was slightly higher for the genomic data compared to the transcriptomic data (Table 3).
Table 3

Results of transcriptome completeness assessment by Benchmarking Universal Single-Copy Orthologs (BUSCO) using OrthoDB’s Arthropoda database of orthologous genes



Complete BUSCOs

Fragmented BUSCOs

Missing BUSCOs

Total BUSCOs Searched

Hyalella azteca


970 (91.0%)

29 (2.7%)

67 (6.3%)




990 (92.8%)

49 (4.6%)

27 (2.6%)

Daphnia pulex


1,038 (97.3%)

9 (0.8%)

19 (1.9%)


1,048 (98.4%)

16 (1.5%)

2 (0.1%)

Our custom version of the PIA tool’s pipeline outputs a single FASTA file of amino acid sequences per transcriptome. This file contains the transcripts that remain after the removal of spurious BLAST hits and the merging/removal of duplicated and fragmented sequences, and should only contain those that are closely related to the gene of interest (i.e., opsins). This output can then be piped to a final step for functional annotation by phylogenetic inference. In our case, putative opsin sequences for both species were aligned to a curated dataset of different opsin types. This final step resulted in a large phylogeny (Fig. 1) where opsins are classified based on their phylogenetic position.
Fig. 1

Maximum-Likelihood phylogeny of opsins estimated using putative opsin proteins identified by our annotation pipeline from the de novo transcriptome assemblies of Hyalella azteca and Daphnia pulex, along with a dataset of reference opsin sequences. Clades are annotated with opsin types contained therein and, in the case of visual opsins, with their inferred spectral sensitivities

Following Trinity’s definition of assembled genes/isoforms, our pipeline identified 1 SWS/UV opsin (2 isoforms), 3 LWS opsins (3 isoforms), and 1 opsin-like GPCR as an outgroup (Fig. 2; Table 4) in H. azteca’s transcriptome. On the other hand, D. pulex's transcriptome contained 2 different SWS opsins (4 isoforms), 6 LWS opsins (35 isoforms), 2 melanopsins (4 isoforms), and 1 opsin-like transcript that was placed within the outgroup clade (Fig. 2; Table 4).
Fig. 2

Expanded view of the melanopsin, Arthropod LWS, and Arthropod SWS/UV clades. Large noncrustacean clades have been collapsed for readability. Support values correspond to SH-aLRT/aBayes/UFBoot, and are not shown when UFBoot support < 75. Splits are considered highly supported when SH-aLRT >= 80%, aBayes = 0.95, and UFboot = 95%

Table 4

Number of genes and respective isoforms, as defined by Trinity, recovered for each type of opsin in Hyalella azteca and Daphnia pulex


Short-wavelength sensitive/UV




Opsin-like transcripts (Outgroups)











Hyalella azteca











Daphnia pulex











The identity results of the HHBlits search using iterative pairwise alignments and profile HHMs are summarized in Table 5, along with the inferred classification of each putative opsin transcript based on their respective placement in the phylogeny (Figs. 1, 2). In addition, each sequence entry was annotated as visual or nonvisual based on the sequence homology inferred by both methods (represented by a black box when both methods are in agreement; and a gray box when HMMs fail to identify them as a visual opsin; Table 5).
Table 5

Identification and classification of Hyalella azteca and Daphnia pulex opsins based on phylogenetic inference and HMM profile alignments

Putative visual opsins are marked in black, under the “Visual” column, when both methodologies are in agreement and in gray when they differ

Genomic structure of annotated opsins

Every protein sequence predicted using the modified PIA pipeline gave at least one significant TBLASTN hit both in the D. pulex and H. azteca reference genomes. The observed distribution of introns within opsin genes appears to be variable both within and between genomes. To illustrate this variation, the Intron–Exon gene structure patterns of representative opsins were further characterized. The genomic region encoding for the SWS/UV opsin gene spanned about 4 kb in Hyalella and presented an extremely partitioned structure formed by at least seven different exons (Fig. 3). Interestingly, some LWS opsins within the H. azteca genome were located on the antisense strand and appear to be duplicated retrogenes (Fig. 3; see Discussion). Both SWS/UV and LWS opsins were also arranged following disparate gene architectures in the D. pulex genome (Fig. 4). LWS opsins presented slightly shorter introns on average than SWS/UV opsins, but the presence of gene duplications and genes with numerous introns were identified in most cases. Exon size distribution had similar shapes in both D. pulex and H. azteca, being multimodal for both genomes (Fig. 5). Nevertheless, H. azteca had a larger average exon size (Mean 410 bp; Median 235 bp) than D. pulex (Mean 225 bp; Median 164). Mapping results in SAM format are available for download from the following repository:
Fig. 3

Intron–Exon gene structure patterns of representative Hyalella azteca SWS/UV and LWS opsins. A SAM alignment file with all of the mapped transcripts is provided in the GitHub respository:

Fig. 4

Intron–Exon gene structure patterns of representative Daphnia pulex opsins SWS/UV and LWS opsins, which are arranged in the genome in distinct patterns according to opsin type. A SAM alignment file with all of the mapped transcripts is provided in the GitHub respository:

Fig. 5

Exon size distribution for both Daphnia pulex and Hyalella azteca. X-axis is in base pair units (bp), while Y-axis represents proportion of transcripts in said range


Our results demonstrate the power of incorporating phylogenetic annotation toward the characterization and interpretation of large transcriptomic datasets of nonmodel organisms. Annotations via simple sequence similarity based methods like BLAST alone can result in false positives including, but not limited to, functional diversification following gene duplication events, domain shuffling, or even existing database errors (review Sjölander, 2004). Using the modified version of PIA allowed for the rapid and automated identification of false positives among the putative visual opsins curated for the two species of crustaceans, H. azteca and D. pulex. The modified PIA pipeline was able to successfully identify and filter opsins from the de novo transcriptomes in a fully automated manner with minimal manual curation. This automation is made possible mainly by the modifications and wrapper scripts that converted PIA from a Galaxy workflow to a command-line one, which effectively increases the scalability of the pipeline allowing for the identification of opsins (and other genes) from multiple transcriptomic datasets through simple scripting. Theoretically, this would allow for the annotation of dozens, if not hundreds, of transcriptomes at a time without the need of the excessive time-costs that a graphical user interface and manual curation of hundreds of phylogenetic trees would imply. Further improvements are certainly possible, particularly in terms of parallelization for its use in High Performance Computing environments for even greater computing speeds. Nevertheless, the current pipeline is dependent on its individual components and would thus require those to be made compatible with parallelization beforehand.

The initial hits recovered by a BLAST search using the original PIA opsin dataset recovered 11 putative opsin isoforms for H. azteca and 51 for D. pulex. Our pipeline removed 54.5% and 23.5% of those as spurious hits (Table 4) based on the chosen branch length thresholds. These thresholds can easily be adjusted for increased/decreased conservativeness if deemed necessary, which should be assessed on a gene-to-gene basis. The final phylogenetic inference took this a step further by classifying these opsins in statistically supported functional clades (Figs. 1, 2), which allowed for the determination of their putative photoreceptive roles. Both H. azteca and D. pulex transcriptomes were generated from whole organism RNA extractions. As opsins are known to function in various cells and tissues of arthropods, as well as the retina (e.g., Lampel et al., 2005), it is likely that the opsin groups identified here are expressed across several tissue types. Nonvisual opsins can be readily identified via phylogenetic inference provided that appropriate reference sequences are included in the multiple sequence alignments. HMM alignments were also used as a secondary source of evidence to confirm protein identities as well as to compare with the results of the phylogenetic annotation. HHMs were able to pair most putative visual opsins to the lateral compound eye opsins of arthropods for both species and, in the case of D. pulex, specifically to Daphnia class A rhodopsins. While there were a few discrepancies among annotation methods with regard to visual opsins (r-opsins) and melanopsins, this could be explained by their common origin (Porter et al., 2012). Melanopsins are very similar to the r-opsins found in invertebrates (Provencio et al., 1998, 2000) and can couple to similar signaling cascades (Isoldi et al., 2005; Panda et al., 2005; Qiu et al., 2005). In fact, the similarities between these opsin types are evident in our phylogenetic trees (Figs. 1, 2), showing a well-supported clade of arthropod UV opsins nested within the melanopsin clade. Partial sequences or existing database errors could also be a contributing factor to which BLAST and HMM approaches are more sensitive. Even though the HMM searches were not able to determine the functional classification of the opsins in terms of spectral sensitivity, they were confirmed as visual opsins (Table 5). Our results further support the notion that integrated annotation methods are advantageous and recommended to confirm the robustness of findings and annotations.

Opsin repertoire and spectral sensitivities

There are several subgroups of rhabdomeric visual opsins responsible for vision in crustaceans, each with characteristic absorption spectra when bound to a chromophore (Kashiyama et al., 2009; Henze & Oakley, 2015). The number and type of opsins found throughout Crustacea can range greatly, partially owing to differences in methodologies—with no homologs found in freshwater Bathynellacea (Kim et al., 2017), one or two SWS visual opsins found in species of deep-sea shrimp (Wong et al., 2015) and brachyuran crabs (Sakamoto et al., 1996), and as many as 33 identified in stomatopods (Porter et al., 2009, 2013). The number of opsins and corresponding spectral sensitivity of an organism appear to correlate with its life-history, habitat, and the ecological niche it may occupy (Marshall et al., 2015; Stieb et al., 2017). This study represents the first transcriptomic exploration of H. azteca’s opsin repertoire, which revealed several putative visual opsins (Fig. 2; Table 4). Hyalella azteca is a freshwater epibenthic amphipod commonly used as a bioindicator species. Though further evidence is required to make inferences regarding the expression and functionality of these putative opsins, the ability to differentiate between short and long wavelengths would allow H. azteca to discern between direct and reflected light from the benthos. Direct sunlight (or moonlight) tends to be abundant in short-wavelengths (< 450 nm) whereas reflected light from sources like leaves and sediment tends to be shifted toward longer (> 450 nm) wavelengths (Menzel, 1979). Our analyses revealed four distinct opsin genes (one SWS/UV and three LWS) expressed in its transcriptome, and suggests that H. azteca may be capable of discriminating between the aforementioned light sources. The authors hypothesize that if H. azteca does possess functional SWS and LWS visual opsins, this distinction could serve as an important environmental cue influencing their response to a variety of abiotic and biotic factors (e.g., refugia, vegetation, predators, prey). However, the authors note that additional studies incorporating electroretinographic analyses are needed to confirm if H. azteca can indeed discriminate between different wavelengths of light as the transcriptomic data suggests. Fewer opsins were found to be expressed in H. azteca compared to D. pulex, which is not surprising given the expansive opsin repertoire previously described for Daphnia (Colbourne et al., 2011; Brandon et al., 2017). Daphnia has both simple and compound eyes, which may contribute to the relatively large number of opsin isoforms expressed. Differences have been found in the number and type of opsin genes expressed among eye forms within the ostracod Skogsberia lerneri (Oakley & Huber, 2004) and similarly hypothesized for Daphnia (Brandon et al., 2017).

The subset of identified rhabdomeric opsins expressed in the D. pulex transcriptome allows for comparisons to prior studies characterizing the range of opsin types found in the D. pulex genome (Colbourne et al., 2011; Brandon et al. 2017). Colbourne et al. (2011) reported 25 medium- (MWS) and long-wavelength-sensitive (LWS) opsin genes as present in the D. pulex genome, but only 3 LWS opsin genes (and 24 isoforms) were identified in our analyses. While it is possible that the additional opsin classes identified in previous genomic investigations were not expressed in the current D. pulex dataset, it is also possible these discrepancies are due to differences in classification schemes across Arthropoda, with ‘blue-green’ wavelengths currently grouped under SWS. An alternative explanation is that separate genes are being considered isoforms of each other by Trinity during the de novo assembly process. Considering the large number of “isoforms” and low number of “genes” identified in the D. pulex transcriptome, in contrast with previous genomic investigations (e.g., Brandon et al., 2017), this is likely a contributing factor to this observed discrepancy.

Genomic architecture and opsin gene duplications

Gene duplications play a fundamental role in genome evolution (Ohno, 1970; Kondrashov et al., 2002), with replicates occasionally evolving new biological functions (Zhang, 2003; Pegueroles et al., 2013). Some of these genome duplications may result in pseudogenes, loci whose nucleotide sequences are similar to a normal gene but that do not produce a functional product when translated. The “unprocessed” pseudogenes, can have all the normal parts of a protein-coding gene, but generally are nonfunctional due to coding errors (Lynch & Force, 1999). Occasionally, so-called “processed” pseudogenes lack the noncoding introns present in the original gene, and are thought to arise from mRNA reinserted into the genome by reverse transcription (Betrán & Long, 2002). Some of these "retrogenes" have been found to be actively transcribed, and the RNA product can be further processed to give two different molecules of RNA of smaller size that form elaborate secondary structures. These RNA regulatory molecules can control a variety of key genes involved in the regulation of the cell cycle and in cell growth (Tutar, 2012; Wen et al., 2012). Opsin genes with few or no introns, such as the LWS opsins our analyses identified in H. azteca (Fig. 3), have evolved in various metazoans (including crustaceans) and are thought to be functional photoproteins (Morris et al., 1993; Fitzgibbon et al., 1995; Porter et al., 2007; Liegertová et al., 2015), although it has been postulated that the expression of retrotransposed opsins is a form of transcriptional noise and a byproduct of transcriptional activity in the new genomic region (Xu et al., 2016). Opsin diversification and photopigment evolution seems to have been driven by duplicated opsin genes (e.g., Frentiu et al., 2007; Briscoe et al., 2010), as is the case of both ocular and extraocular cnidarian photoreceptors (Liegertová et al., 2015). Likewise, a functional LWS retrogene was recently found in the arthropod Helicoverpa armigera, although expression was believed to be under temporal compartmentalization and primarily expressed in larval stages (Xu et al., 2016). Our results provide further evidence supporting the importance of retrogenes in the evolution of the opsin gene family.

Concluding remarks

Our results support the use of integrative phylogenetic annotation in place of exclusively similarity-based approaches. This is an often overlooked but especially important consideration for the study of protein families (e.g., GPCRs) known for having large numbers of isoforms, multiple duplication events, low sequence similarities, and various combinations of highly conserved domains with hypervariable regions. Phylogenetic approaches are not only able to robustly evaluate homology in an evolutionary context, but they can also provide valuable functional information based on recovered branching patterns. In the case of opsins, this functional information can be insightful from a variety of perspectives, and aid in the formulation and testing of organismal, ecological, and evolutionary hypotheses. Many of these will be put to the test in the present and forthcoming genomic era, for which efficient and scalable methodologies and pipelines will be paramount.



The authors would like to thank Megan Porter for access to her compilation of reference opsin data, Daniel Speiser and Todd Oakley for allowing us to modify the original PIA tool, and Katherine Dougan for advice during the preparation of this manuscript. JPM was supported by the Philip M. Smith Graduate Research Grant for Cave and Karst Research from the Cave Research Foundation, The Crustacean Society Scholarship in Graduate Studies, and Florida International University’s Dissertation Year Fellowship. This work was partially funded by two grants awarded from the National Science Foundation: Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (#1701835) awarded to JPM and HBG, and the Division of Environmental Biology Bioluminescence and Vision grant (DEB-1556059) awarded to HBG. FP acknowledges project CHALLENGEN (CTM2013-48163) of the Spanish Government and a postdoctoral contract funded by the Beatriu de Pinos Programme of the Generalitat de Catalunya (2014-BPB-00038). The authors would like to thank the Instructional & Research Computing Center (IRCC) at Florida International University for providing High-Performance Computing resources that have contributed to the research results reported within this article. This is contribution #92 of the Marine Education and Research Center of the Institute for the Water and the Environment at the Florida International University.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesFlorida International University – Biscayne Bay CampusNorth MiamiUSA
  2. 2.Centre d’Estudis Avançats de Blanes (CEAB-CSIC)BlanesSpain

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