The Origin of the Vertebrate Eye
By Trevor D. Lamb (ARC Centre of Excellence in Vision Science, and Division of Neuroscience, John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University, Canberra), Edward N. Pugh Jr. (F.M. Kirby Center for Molecular Ophthalmology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), and Shaun P. Collin (School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane)
(Evolution: Education and Outreach, Sep. 2008)
In his considerations of "organs of extreme perfection," Charles Darwin described the evidence that would be necessary to support the evolutionary origin of the eye, namely, demonstration of the existence of "numerous gradations" from the most primitive eye to the most perfect one, where each such tiny change had provided a survival advantage (however slight) to the organism possessing the subtly altered form. In this paper, we discuss evidence indicating that the vertebrate eye did indeed evolve through numerous subtle changes. The great majority of the gradual transitions that did occur have not been preserved to the present time, either in the fossil record or in extant species; yet clear evidence of their occurrence remains. We discuss the remarkable "eye" of the hagfish, which has features intermediate between a simple light detector and an image-forming camera-like eye and which may represent a step in the evolution of our eye that can now be studied by modern methods. We also describe the important clues to the evolutionary origin of the vertebrate eye that can be found by studying the embryological development of our own eye, by examining the molecular genetic record preserved in our own genes and in the genes of other vertebrates, and through consideration of the imperfections (or evolutionary "scars") in the construction of our eye. Taking these findings together, it is possible to discuss in some detail how the vertebrate eye evolved.