Fred Rieke Ph.D.
Professor, Investigator HHMI
University of California (Berkeley), 1991
Signal Transduction in the Visual System
The research in my lab focuses on sensory signal processing, particularly in cases where sensory systems perform at or near the limits imposed by physics. Photon counting in the visual system is a beautiful example. At its peak sensitivity, the performance of the visual system is limited largely by the division of light into discrete photons. This observation has several implications for phototransduction and signal processing in the retina: 1.) rod photoreceptors must transduce single photon absorptions with high fidelity, 2.) single photon signals in photoreceptors, which are only 0.03 - 0.1 mV, must be reliably transmitted to second-order cells in the retina, and 3.) absorption of a single photon by a single rod must produce a noticeable change in the pattern of action potentials sent from the eye to the brain. My approach is to combine quantitative physiological experiments and theory to understand photon counting in terms of basic biophysical mechanisms.
Fortunately there is more to visual perception than counting photons. The visual system is very adept at operating over a wide range of light intensities (about 12 orders of magnitude). Over most of this range, vision is mediated by cone photoreceptors. Thus adaptation is paramount to cone vision. Again one would like to understand quantitatively how the biophysical mechanisms involved in phototransduction, synaptic transmission, and neural coding contribute to adaptation.