Eye evolution and its functional basis

Vis Neurosci. 2013 Mar;30(1-2):5-20. doi: 10.1017/S0952523813000035.


Eye evolution is driven by the evolution of visually guided behavior. Accumulation of gradually more demanding behaviors have continuously increased the performance requirements on the photoreceptor organs. Starting with nondirectional photoreception, I argue for an evolutionary sequence continuing with directional photoreception, low-resolution vision, and finally, high-resolution vision. Calculations of the physical requirements for these four sensory tasks show that they correlate with major innovations in eye evolution and thus work as a relevant classification for a functional analysis of eye evolution. Together with existing molecular and morphological data, the functional analysis suggests that urbilateria had a simple set of rhabdomeric and ciliary receptors used for directional photoreception, and that organ duplications, positional shifts and functional shifts account for the diverse patterns of eyes and photoreceptors seen in extant animals. The analysis also suggests that directional photoreception evolved independently at least twice before the last common ancestor of bilateria and proceeded several times independently to true vision in different bilaterian and cnidarian groups. This scenario is compatible with Pax-gene expression in eye development in the different animal groups. The whole process from the first opsin to high-resolution vision took about 170 million years and was largely completed by the onset of the Cambrian, about 530 million years ago. Evolution from shadow detectors to multiple directional photoreceptors has further led to secondary cases of eye evolution in bivalves, fan worms, and chitons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Eye / cytology*
  • Humans
  • Photoreceptor Cells / classification
  • Photoreceptor Cells / physiology*
  • Signal Detection, Psychological / physiology*
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*
  • Visual Pathways / physiology*