In avian pinealocytes, an environmental light signal resets the phase of the endogenous circadian pacemaker that controls the rhythmic production of melatonin. Investigation of the pineal phototransduction pathway should therefore reveal the molecular mechanism of the biological clock. The presence of rhodopsin-like photoreceptive pigment, transducin-like immunoreaction, and cyclic GMP-dependent cation-channel activity in the avian pinealocytes suggests that there is a similarity between retinal rod cells and pinealocytes in the phototransduction pathway. We have now cloned chicken pineal cDNA encoding the photoreceptive molecule, which is 43-48% identical in amino-acid sequence to vertebrate retinal opsins. Pineal opsin, produced by transfection of complementary DNA into cultured cells, was reconstituted with 11-cis-retinal, resulting in formation of a blue-sensitive pigment (λ(max) ~ 470 nm). In the light of this functional evidence and because the gene is specifically expressed only in the pineal gland, we conclude that it is a pineal photosensor and name it pinopsin.
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