Evolution of eyes and photoreceptor cell types

Int J Dev Biol. 2003;47(7-8):563-71.


The evolution of the eye is a matter of debate ever since Darwin's Origin of Species. While morphological comparisons of eye anatomy and photoreceptor cell types led to the view that animal eyes evolved multiple times independently, the molecular conservation of the pax6 eye-specifying cascade has indicated the contrary - that animal eyes evolved from a common, simple precursor, the proto-eye. Morphological and molecular comparative approaches are combined here in a novel Evo-Devo approach, the molecular comparison of cell types ("comparative molecular cell biology"). In the eye, the various types of photoreceptor cells, as well as pigment and lens cells, each require distinct combinations of specifying transcription factors that control their particular differentiation programmes, such as opsin expression in photoreceptors, specific neurotransmitter metabolism, or axonal outgrowth. Comparing the molecular combinatorial codes of cell types of animal extant eyes, their evolutionary histories can be reconstructed. This is exemplified here on the evolution of ciliary and rhabdomeric photoreceptor cells in bilaterian eyes and on the evolution of cell type diversity in the vertebrate retina. I propose that the retinal ganglion, amacrine and horizontal cells are evolutionary sister cell types that evolved from a common rhabdomeric photoreceptor cell precursor.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amacrine Cells / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Eye Proteins
  • Eye* / anatomy & histology
  • Eye* / embryology
  • Genetic Variation
  • Homeodomain Proteins / genetics
  • Models, Biological
  • PAX6 Transcription Factor
  • Paired Box Transcription Factors
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Invertebrate / cytology*
  • Photoreceptor Cells, Vertebrate / cytology*
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Retina / anatomy & histology
  • Retina / embryology
  • Retinal Ganglion Cells / metabolism
  • Rod Opsins / genetics
  • Rod Opsins / metabolism


  • Eye Proteins
  • Homeodomain Proteins
  • PAX6 Transcription Factor
  • Paired Box Transcription Factors
  • Repressor Proteins
  • Rod Opsins