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The evolution of vision

Different types of information carried by light and the behaviours they control

Back in the Precambrian era, about 700 million years ago, some of the first multicellular animal ancestors may have used light-degradation of melatonin to tell day from night. By modifying a receptor protein such that it binds Vitamin-A aldehyde rather than melatonin, a new and much more efficient light detection system may have been born. From that point, information contained in light became an important cue driving the evolution of ever more complex behaviours. These behaviours in turn generated selection for new receptor structures that could provide directionality, faster response and spectral information – in other words: selection for eye evolution.

Key innovations that guided eye evolution

In this project we investigate the process leading up to high-resolution eyes. We are interested in the functional reasons that generated selection for eye evolution, and we try to reconstruct the evolutionary changes in function, position and structure of photoreceptor organs in all corners of the animal kingdom. We use molecular cues, theoretical modelling, and measurements of morphology, physiology and behaviour on primitive eyes

In a geologically short time, a light sensitive patch can gradually evolve into an eye
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People involved


Detlev Arendt, EMBL, Todd Oakley, UCSB, Megan Porter, USD

Downloads & links

Essay: Life's Grand Design