The Evolution of Human Color Vision

The Science Teacher, February 2015 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of Human Color Vision


Many genetic mutations in visual pigments, spread over millions of years, were required for humans to evolve from a primitive mammal with a dim, shadowy view of the world into a greater ape able to see all the colors in a rainbow.

Now, after more than two decades of research, scientists have finished a detailed and complete picture of the evolution of human color vision, including the process for how humans switched from ultraviolet (UV) vision to violet vision, or the ability to see blue light. Results were published in the journal PLOS Genetics.

"We have now traced all of the evolutionary pathways, going back 90 million years, that led to human color vision," says lead author Shozo Yokoyama, a biologist at Emory University. "We've clarified these molecular pathways at the chemical level, the genetic level, and the functional level."

Yokoyama and various collaborators over the years have teased out secrets of the adaptive evolution of vision in humans and other vertebrates by studying ancestral molecules. The lengthy process involves first estimating and synthesizing ancestral proteins and pigments of a species, then conducting experiments on them.

Around 90 million years ago, our primitive mammalian ancestors were nocturnal and had UV-sensitive and red-sensitive color, giving them a bi-chromatic view of the world. By around 30 million years ago, our ancestors had evolved four classes of opsin genes, giving them the ability to see the full-color spectrum of visible light, except for UV. …

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