Phototaxis and the origin of visual eyes

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016 Jan 5;371(1685):20150042. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0042.


Vision allows animals to detect spatial differences in environmental light levels. High-resolution image-forming eyes evolved from low-resolution eyes via increases in photoreceptor cell number, improvements in optics and changes in the neural circuits that process spatially resolved photoreceptor input. However, the evolutionary origins of the first low-resolution visual systems have been unclear. We propose that the lowest resolving (two-pixel) visual systems could initially have functioned in visual phototaxis. During visual phototaxis, such elementary visual systems compare light on either side of the body to regulate phototactic turns. Another, even simpler and non-visual strategy is characteristic of helical phototaxis, mediated by sensory-motor eyespots. The recent mapping of the complete neural circuitry (connectome) of an elementary visual system in the larva of the annelid Platynereis dumerilii sheds new light on the possible paths from non-visual to visual phototaxis and to image-forming vision. We outline an evolutionary scenario focusing on the neuronal circuitry to account for these transitions. We also present a comprehensive review of the structure of phototactic eyes in invertebrate larvae and assign them to the non-visual and visual categories. We propose that non-visual systems may have preceded visual phototactic systems in evolution that in turn may have repeatedly served as intermediates during the evolution of image-forming eyes.

Keywords: connectome; eye evolution; marine ciliated larva; opsin; photoreceptor; vision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Eye / anatomy & histology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Opsins / genetics
  • Opsins / metabolism
  • Photoreceptor Cells / physiology*


  • Opsins