Researchers in the laboratories of Detlev Arendt and Jochen Wittbrodt have discovered that the light-sensitive cells of our eyes, the rods and cones, are of unexpected evolutionary origin they come from an ancient population of light-sensitive cells that were initially located in the brain.
"It is not surprising that cells of human eyes come from the brain. We still have light-sensitive cells in our brains today which detect light and influence our daily rhythms of activity," explains Wittbrodt. "Quite possibly, the human eye has originated from light-sensitive cells in the brain. Only later in evolution would such brain cells have relocated into an eye and gained the potential to confer vision."
The scientists discovered that two types of light-sensitive cells existed in our early animal ancestors: rhabdomeric and ciliary. In most animals, rhabdomeric cells became part of the eyes, and ciliary cells remained embedded in the brain. But the evolution of the human eye is peculiar it is the ciliary cells that were recruited for vision which eventually gave rise to the rods and cones of the retina.
So how did EMBL researchers finally trace the evolution of the eye?
By studying a "living fossil," Platynereis dumerilii, a marine worm that still resembles early ancestors that lived up to 600 million years ago. Arendt had seen pictures of this worm's brain taken by researcher Adriaan Dorresteijn (University of Mainz, Germany). "When I saw these pictures, I noticed that the shape of th
Contact: Trista Dawson
European Molecular Biology Laboratory