Evidence is reviewed from a wide range of studies relevant to the evolution of vertebrate photoreceptors and phototransduction, in order to permit the synthesis of a scenario for the major steps that occurred during the evolution of cones, rods and the vertebrate retina. The ancestral opsin originated more than 700 Mya (million years ago) and duplicated to form three branches before cnidarians diverged from our own lineage. During chordate evolution, ciliary opsins (C-opsins) underwent multiple stages of improvement, giving rise to the 'bleaching' opsins that characterise cones and rods. Prior to the '2R' rounds of whole genome duplication near the base of the vertebrate lineage, 'cone' photoreceptors already existed; they possessed a transduction cascade essentially the same as in modern cones, along with two classes of opsin: SWS and LWS (short- and long-wave-sensitive). These cones appear to have made synaptic contact directly onto ganglion cells, in a two-layered retina that resembled the pineal organ of extant non-mammalian vertebrates. Interestingly, those ganglion cells appear to be descendants of microvillar photoreceptor cells. No lens was associated with this two-layered retina, and it is likely to have mediated circadian timing rather than spatial vision. Subsequently, retinal bipolar cells evolved, as variants of ciliary photoreceptors, and greatly increased the computational power of the retina. With the advent of a lens and extraocular muscles, spatial imaging information became available for central processing, and gave rise to vision in vertebrates more than 500 Mya. The '2R' genome duplications permitted the refinement of cascade components suitable for both rods and cones, and also led to the emergence of five visual opsins. The exact timing of the emergence of 'true rods' is not yet clear, but it may not have occurred until after the divergence of jawed and jawless vertebrates.
Keywords: Evolution; Opsins; Photoreceptors; Phototransduction; Retina.
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