SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—The nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) has many hidden skills—it can sniff out insects buried 20 cm underground, for example, and jump more than a meter into the air when startled. Seeing, however, is not one of its natural talents. Because its eyes lack light-detecting cells called cones, it has fuzzy, colorless vision. The light-receptive cells that an armadillo does have, called rods, are so sensitive that daylight renders the nocturnal animals practically blind. But the deficit may have a silver lining for humans. To study diseases that cause blindness in people, scientists typically genetically “knock out” cone-related genes in animals like mice. Such studies are limited, because they examine only one gene at a time, when a number of different genes contribute to cone dysfunction, researchers say. By comparing the armadillo gene to other closely related mammals, a team of scientists has now identified several cone-related genes in the armadillo genome that became nonfunctional millions of years ago, they report today at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California. This makes the animals "excellent candidates" for gene therapy experiments that could restore color vision and point the way to potential human treatments, they say.
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