Vertebrate ancestors had only cone-like photoreceptors. The duplex retina evolved in jawless vertebrates with the advent of highly photosensitive rod-like photoreceptors. Despite cones being the arbiters of high-resolution color vision, rods emerged as the dominant photoreceptor in mammals during a nocturnal phase early in their evolution. We investigated the evolutionary and developmental origins of rods in two divergent vertebrate retinas. In mice, we discovered genetic and epigenetic vestiges of short-wavelength cones in developing rods, and cell-lineage tracing validated the genesis of rods from S cones. Curiously, rods did not derive from S cones in zebrafish. Our study illuminates several questions regarding the evolution of duplex retina and supports the hypothesis that, in mammals, the S-cone lineage was recruited via the Maf-family transcription factor NRL to augment rod photoreceptors. We propose that this developmental mechanism allowed the adaptive exploitation of scotopic niches during the nocturnal bottleneck early in mammalian evolution.
Published by Elsevier Inc.