A pair of researchers at the University of Washington have successfully cured colorblindness in two squirrel monkeys.
This may not sound like a big deal to you if you’re not a squirrel monkey (or if you have normal vision), but for people with colorblindness, it could be life-altering.
The term colorblindness is actually something of a misnomer. A more accurate term is ‘color deficiency’ — and it doesn’t mean people see in black and white.
“Ninety-nine percent of all people who suffer from color deficiency have ‘red-green colorblindness,’” says Maureen Neitz, a genetic engineer and one of the researchers who created the cure. “This doesn’t mean they can’t see red or green; they just experience red or green differently from normal people.”
This small gap in the color spectrum can change the most basic experiences most of us take for granted. Autumn leaves, beautiful sunsets, even telling the difference between a red and a green pepper — these common, shared experiences simply elude people who can’t accurately discern shades of red and green.
(Being a colorblind videographer trying to make a video about color vision is no picnic, either, notes Luke Groskin, Science Friday’s own colorblind video producer.)
So it’s easy to see why the one-in-12 men and the one-in-200 women affected by the disorder might be interested in a cure. And in 1999, Maureen Neitz and her husband Jay Neitz, a neuroscientist, decided to pursue one.
Easier said than done. Because color deficiency isn’t an illness, it’s genetic — though in rare cases it can be caused by an unrelated illness.
Here’s what happens: The retina at the back of the human eye holds three types of photoreceptor cells, called cones. One is most sensitive to red, the second to blue and the third to green. Each of these cones and their corresponding pigments are encoded by specific genes.
“Humans and other old-world primates have two genes on the X chromosome that encode visual pigments,” Maureen Neitz explains. “One encodes the red cone pigment and the other encodes the green cone pigment. But if you’re colorblind, only one type, red or green, is expressed.”
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SOURCE: PRI; Science Friday, Luke Groskin