Color-changing cells in an Atlantic squid’s skin contain light-sensitive pigments. Alexandra Kingston, CC BY-ND
We humans are uncommonly visual creatures. And those of us endowed with normal sight are used to thinking of our eyes as vital to how we experience the world.
Vision is an advanced form of photoreception – that is, light sensing. But we also experience other more rudimentary forms of photoreception in our daily lives. We all know, for instance, the delight of perceiving the warm sun on our skin, in this case using heat as a substitute for light. No eyes or even special photoreceptor cells are necessary.
But scientists have discovered in recent decades that many animals – including human beings – do have specialized light-detecting molecules in unexpected places, outside of the eyes. These “extraocular photoreceptors” are usually found in the central nervous system or in the skin, but also frequently in internal organs. What are light-sensing molecules doing in places beyond the eyes?
All the visual cells identified in animals detect light using a single family of proteins, called the opsins. These proteins grab a light-sensitive molecule – derived from vitamin A – that changes its structure when exposed to light. The opsin in turn changes its own shape and turns on signaling pathways in photoreceptor cells that ultimately send a message to the brain that light has been detected.