BACKGROUNDDivergence within cis-regulatory sequences may contribute to the adaptive evolution of gene expression, but functional alleles in these regions are difficult to identify without abundant genomic resources. Among African cichlid fishes, the differential expression of seven opsin genes has produced adaptive differences in visual sensitivity. Quantitative genetic analysis suggests that cis-regulatory alleles near the SWS2-LWS opsins may contribute to this variation. Here, we sequence BACs containing the opsin genes of two cichlids, Oreochromis niloticus and Metriaclima zebra. We use phylogenetic footprinting and shadowing to examine divergence in conserved non-coding elements, promoter sequences, and 3'-UTRs surrounding each opsin in search of candidate cis-regulatory sequences that influence cichlid opsin expression.RESULTSWe identified 20 conserved non-coding elements surrounding the opsins of cichlids and other teleosts, including one known enhancer and a retinal microRNA. Most conserved elements contained computationally-predicted binding sites that correspond to transcription factors that function in vertebrate opsin expression; O. niloticus and M. zebra were significantly divergent in two of these. Similarly, we found a large number of relevant transcription factor binding sites within each opsin's proximal promoter, and identified five opsins that were considerably divergent in both expression and the number of transcription factor binding sites shared between O. niloticus and M. zebra. We also found several microRNA target sites within the 3'-UTR of each opsin, including two 3'-UTRs that differ significantly between O. niloticus and M. zebra. Finally, we examined interspecific divergence among 18 phenotypically diverse cichlids from Lake Malawi for one conserved non-coding element, two 3'-UTRs, and five opsin proximal promoters. We found that all regions were highly conserved with some evidence of CRX transcription factor binding site turnover. We also found three SNPs within two opsin promoters and one non-coding element that had weak association with cichlid opsin expression.CONCLUSIONSThis study is the first to systematically search the opsins of cichlids for putative cis-regulatory sequences. Although many putative regulatory regions are highly conserved across a large number of phenotypically diverse cichlids, we found at least nine divergent sequences that could contribute to opsin expression differences in cis and stand out as candidates for future functional analyses.