Evo-Ed: Integrative Cases in Evolution Education

Cases for Evolution Education

Molecular Genetics

Humans have trichromatic vision. This means that our eyes can detect color at three different color wavelengths: blue, green and red. This is not true of all primates. Some have dichromatic vision, they can only detect two different wavelengths.

Three versions of a chromosome showing three possbilie gene combinations

DNA, Central Dogma and the Opsin Protein

DNA is made up of long strings of nucleotides. There are four nucleotides in DNA: Adenine (A), Thymine (T), Guanine (G) and Cytosine (C). These nucleotides are held together by a phosphate-sugar “backbone” and are complemented by a parallel strand of nucleotides making a DNA molecule “double-stranded”. Parallel strands are held together by hydrogen bonds between bases; Adenine binds to Thymine, Cytosine binds to Guanine. Discrete sections of DNA carry sequences of nucleotides that, when processed, are responsible for proteins or functional RNA chains. These sections are called genes. When making a protein, the DNA is first transcribed into a single-stranded piece of messenger RNA (mRNA) using an enzyme called RNA polymerase. The newly made mRNA is then translated through a ribosome into a long chain of amino acids. This chain of amino acids folds up to make a functional protein. Proteins build the organism, including all measurable and observable characteristics.

A chromosome originally conained one copy of the gene coding for the medium wavelength gene.  Gene duplciation caused it to contain three copies.  One copy remained unchanged, one copy became non-functional and one copy mutated to become long wave length sensative.

In the case of monkeys, the SWS opsin gene is located on an autosome (non sex chromosome) – chromosome #7. The MWS and LWS opsin genes are located on the X-chromosome. In many primate species there are many non-functional copies of the MWS gene found on the X-chromosome. This indicates that there were duplication events of the MWS gene that occurred many times throughout the history of trichtomat monkey species. One of those MWS copies accumulated a few specific DNA nucleotide substitution mutations, which gave rise to an LWS opsin gene that encoded a functional LWS opsin protein. In essence, only three specific mutations were needed over tens of millions of years in order for a functional LWS gene to successfully evolve.

One chromosome with the short wave length sensative gene and one chromosome with the medium sensative gene code for two distinct light sensative proteins giving dichromatic vision.  One chromosome with the SWS gene and one chromosome with both the MWS and LWS genes code for three distinct light sensative proteins gving trichromatic vision.

Sex linked effect

Males and Females differe by the number of X chromosomes. If a monkey species has only one gene coding for an opsin protein on the X chromosome then Males can have either long wavelength sensative or short but not both, giving only dichromatic vision.   Some Females can have both long and short, one on each chromosome giving trichromatic vision.

Because the MWS and LWS genes are on the X chromosome, females have two copies of each whereas males have only one of each. New world monkeys usually only have the MWS gene, lacking the LWS gene. Nonetheless, some new world monkey species have some trichromatic females and only dichromatic males. This occurs when there are different variants (i.e. alleles) of the MWS gene, one on each X chromosome, that are spectrally tuned to different wavelengths. Females that have two MWs alleles are therefore trichromatic. Females that have only one allele are dichromatic. Males can only be dichromatic because they only have one x-chromosome.

Heterozygous females of these species have three different opsin genes that code for three different opsin proteins, one from each X chromosome and one from chromosome 7. Homozygous females and all males of these species have only two variations of on the opsin gene so they express only two opsin proteins, one from the X chromosome and one from chromosome 7 (see Jacobs, 1996 for more on trichromatic females and see Neitz and Neitz, 2000 for more on spectral tuning of opsin proteins).