Article

Nature 464, 1006-1011 (15 April 2010) | doi:10.1038/nature08943; Received 23 September 2009; Accepted 24 February 2010; Published online 14 March 2010; Corrected 15 April 2010

Molecular basis of infrared detection by snakes

Elena O. Gracheva1,6, Nicholas T. Ingolia2,3,4,6, Yvonne M. Kelly1, Julio F. Cordero-Morales1, Gunther Hollopeter1,7, Alexander T. Chesler1, Elda E. Sánchez5, John C. Perez5, Jonathan S. Weissman2,3,4 & David Julius1,2

  1. Department of Physiology,
  2. Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology,
  3. Howard Hughes Medical Institute,
  4. California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences, University of California, San Francisco, California 94158-2517, USA
  5. Natural Toxins Research Center, Texas A&M University- Kingsville, Texas 78363, USA
  6. These authors contributed equally to this work.
  7. Present address: Department of Biology, University of Utah, 257 South 1400 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0840, USA.

Correspondence to: David Julius1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to D.J. (Email: julius@cmp.ucsf.edu or Email: david.julius@ucsf.edu).

Top

Snakes possess a unique sensory system for detecting infrared radiation, enabling them to generate a ‘thermal image’ of predators or prey. Infrared signals are initially received by the pit organ, a highly specialized facial structure that is innervated by nerve fibres of the somatosensory system. How this organ detects and transduces infrared signals into nerve impulses is not known. Here we use an unbiased transcriptional profiling approach to identify TRPA1 channels as infrared receptors on sensory nerve fibres that innervate the pit organ. TRPA1 orthologues from pit-bearing snakes (vipers, pythons and boas) are the most heat-sensitive vertebrate ion channels thus far identified, consistent with their role as primary transducers of infrared stimuli. Thus, snakes detect infrared signals through a mechanism involving radiant heating of the pit organ, rather than photochemical transduction. These findings illustrate the broad evolutionary tuning of transient receptor potential (TRP) channels as thermosensors in the vertebrate nervous system.

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