Enigma of the abundant water-soluble cytoplasmic proteins of the cornea: the "refracton" hypothesis

Cornea. 2001 Nov;20(8):853-8. doi: 10.1097/00003226-200111000-00015.


It is accepted that the taxon-specific, multifunctional crystallins (small heat-shock proteins and enzymes) serve structural roles contributing to the transparent and refractive properties of the lens. The transparent cornea also accumulates unexpectedly high proportions of taxon-specific, multifunctional proteins particularly, but not only, in the epithelium. For example, aldehyde dehydrogenase 3 (ALDH3) is the main water-soluble protein in corneal epithelial cells of most mammals (but ALDH1 predominates in the rabbit), whereas gelsolin predominates in the zebrafish corneal epithelium. Moreover, some invertebrates (e.g., squid and scallop) accumulate proteins in their corneas that are similar to their lens crystallins. Pax-6, among other transcription factors, is implicated in development and tissue-specific gene expression of the lens and cornea. Environmental factors appear to influence gene expression in the cornea, but not the lens. Although no direct proof exists, the diverse, abundant corneal proteins may have evolved a crystallinlike role, in addition to their enzymatic or cytoskeletal functions, by a gene sharing mechanism similar to the lens crystallins. Consequently, it is proposed that the cornea and lens be considered as a single refractive unit, called here the "refracton," to emphasize their similarities and common function.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Water
  • Cornea / metabolism*
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism*
  • Eye Proteins / physiology*
  • Gelsolin / physiology
  • Gene Expression
  • Heat-Shock Proteins / physiology
  • Homeodomain Proteins / physiology
  • Humans
  • PAX6 Transcription Factor
  • Paired Box Transcription Factors
  • Refraction, Ocular / physiology*
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Solubility


  • Eye Proteins
  • Gelsolin
  • Heat-Shock Proteins
  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • PAX6 Transcription Factor
  • PAX6 protein, human
  • Paired Box Transcription Factors
  • Repressor Proteins