Rhodopsin, the red photosensitive pigment of rod vision, is composed of a specific cis isomer of retinene, neo-b (11-cis), joined as chromophore to a colorless protein, opsin. We have investigated the thermal denaturation of cattle rhodopsin and opsin in aqueous digitonin solution, and in isolated rod outer limbs. Both rhodopsin and opsin are more stable in rods than in solution. In solution as well as in rods, moreover, rhodopsin is considerably more stable than opsin. The chromophore therefore protects opsin against denaturation. This is true whether rhodopsin is extracted from dark-adapted retinas, or synthesized in vitro from neo-b retinene and opsin. Excess neo-b retinene does not protect rhodopsin against denaturation. The protection involves the specific relationship between the chromophore and opsin. Similar, though somewhat less, protection is afforded opsin by the stereoisomeric iso-a (9-cis) chromophore in isorhodopsin.

The Arrhenius activation energies (Ea) and entropies of activation (ΔS‡) are much greater for thermal denaturation of rhodopsin and isorhodopsin than of opsin. Furthermore, these values differ considerably for rhodopsins from different species —frog, squid, cattle—presumably due to species differences in the opsins.

Heat or light bleaches rhodopsin by different mechanisms, yielding different products. Light stereoisomerizes the retinene chromophore; heat denatures the opsin. Photochemical bleaching therefore yields all-trans retinene and native opsin; thermal bleaching, neo-b retinene and denatured opsin.

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