Light-Modulated Sunscreen Mechanism in the Retina of the Human Eye

Rafal Luchowski, Wojciech Grudzinski, Renata Welc, Maria Manuela Mendes Pinto, Alicja Sek, Jan Ostrowski, Lukasz Nierzwicki, Pawel Chodnicki, Milosz Wieczor, Karol Sowinski, Robert Rejdak, Anselm G. M. Juenemann, Grzegorz Teresinski, Jacek Czub, and Wieslaw I. Gruszecki

The functioning of the human eye in the extreme range of light intensity requires a combination of the high sensitivity of photoreceptors with their photostability. Here, we identify a regulatory mechanism based on dynamic modulation of light absorption by xanthophylls in the retina, realized by reorientation of pigment molecules induced by transcis photoisomerization. We explore this photochemically switchable system using chromatographic analysis coupled with microimaging based on fluorescence lifetime and Raman scattering, showing it at work in both isolated human retina and model lipid membranes. The molecular mechanism underlying xanthophyll reorientation is explained in terms of hydrophobic mismatch using molecular dynamics simulations. Overall, we show that xanthophylls in the human retina act as “molecular blinds”, opening and closing on a submillisecond timescale to dynamically control the intensity of light reaching the photoreceptors, thus enabling vision at a very low light intensity and protecting the retina from photodegradation when suddenly exposed to strong light.