In a groundbreaking study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, researchers have uncovered intriguing similarities and differences in the production of the essential light-absorbing molecule, 11-cis-retinal, in humans and insects. This discovery sheds light on the role of the RPE65 enzyme in causing retinal diseases, particularly Leber congenital amaurosis, a debilitating childhood blindness condition.

Contrary to conventional beliefs, the study revealed that the NinaB protein found in insects and the RPE65 protein in humans share a common evolutionary origin and structural architecture. However, the mechanism by which these proteins generate 11-cis-retinal differs significantly. This challenges preconceived notions about the similarities and distinctions in human and insect vision.

The synthesis of 11-cis-retinal initiates with the consumption of certain foods rich in compounds like beta-carotene, such as carrots and pumpkins. These compounds are broken down by enzymes like NinaB and RPE65 to produce the crucial visual chromophore. While humans necessitate both enzymes for this conversion, insects can achieve it solely with NinaB. Understanding how NinaB efficiently combines two steps into a single reaction was a primary objective of the research.

Lead author Yasmeen Solano, a graduate student involved in the study, highlighted the remarkable resemblance in the structure of NinaB and RPE65 enzymes. Nonetheless, the specific locations where these enzymes carry out their functions differ significantly. By delving into the molecular structure of NinaB, the researchers gained valuable insights into the catalytic machinery essential for supporting retinal visual pigments’ functionality.

The discoveries made through the study of NinaB have not only enhanced our understanding of insect vision but have also provided crucial information about unresolved portions of the RPE65 protein structure. This breakthrough is pivotal in addressing and comprehending the impact of loss-of-function mutations in RPE65, which are linked to severe visual impairments and blindness.

The research conducted at the University of California, Irvine has unveiled a complex interplay between humans and insects in the production of vital visual pigments. By exploring the similarities and differences in the mechanisms underlying 11-cis-retinal synthesis, the study has broadened our understanding of retinal diseases and potential treatment strategies.


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