The role of the lens in early eye development was examined in transgenic mice carrying the cytotoxic diphtheria toxin A gene driven by hamster alpha A-crystallin promoter sequences. Mice hemizygous for this construct are microphthalmic and contain a vacuolated and highly disorganized lens, whereas adult homozygous mice are completely ablated of the lens and lack a pupil, aqueous and posterior chamber, vitreous humor, iris, and ciliary body and show extensive convolution of the sensory retina. Developmental analysis of animals homozygous for the transgene revealed that the optic cup and lens vesicle form normally and that ablation of the lens occurs as a gradual degenerative process beginning between Days 12 and 13 of gestation. Degeneration of the lens vesicle coincides with retarded growth and development of the neuroretina, sclera, and cornea. The anterior lip of the optic cup fails to differentiate into the normal epithelium of the iris and ciliary body and the vitreous body does not develop. Although the retinal layers apparently form normally, retinal folding becomes prominent following lens degeneration. These results suggest that development of a functional lens from Embryonic Day 12.5 onward is critical for formation of the ciliary epithelium, iris, and vitreous body, as well as for appropriate growth, development, and maintenance of morphology of the retina, cornea, sclera, and optic nerve. Our results also provide information on the time course of DT-A-mediated cell destruction in vivo and are discussed in context with previous lens ablation studies and the importance of developmental analysis for interpretation of the extent to which morphogenetic aberrations are concurrent with or secondary to genetic ablation of the target tissue.