Cones comprise only a small portion of the photoreceptors in mammalian retinas. However, cones are vital for color vision and visual perception, and their loss severely diminishes the quality of life for patients with retinal degenerative diseases. Cones function in bright light and have higher demand for energy than rods; yet, the mechanisms that support the energy requirements of cones are poorly understood. One such pathway that potentially could sustain cones under basal and stress conditions is macroautophagy. We addressed the role of macroautophagy in cones by examining how the genetic block of this pathway affects the structural integrity, survival, and function of these neurons. We found that macroautophagy was not detectable in cones under normal conditions but was readily observed following 24 h of fasting. Consistent with this, starvation induced phosphorylation of AMPK specifically in cones indicating cellular starvation. Inhibiting macroautophagy in cones by deleting the essential macroautophagy gene Atg5 led to reduced cone function following starvation suggesting that cones are sensitive to systemic changes in nutrients and activate macroautophagy to maintain their function. ATG5-deficiency rendered cones susceptible to lightinduced damage and caused accumulation of damaged mitochondria in the inner segments, shortening of the outer segments, and degeneration of all cone types, revealing the importance of mitophagy in supporting cone metabolic needs. Our results demonstrate that macroautophagy supports the function and long-term survival of cones providing for their unique metabolic requirements and resistance to stress. Targeting macroautophagy has the potential to preserve cone-mediated vision during retinal degenerative diseases.
- Color vision