Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


New Insight into Primate Eye Evolution

Researchers comparing the fetal development of the eye of the owl monkey with that of the capuchin monkey have found that only a minor difference in the timing of cell proliferation can explain the multiple anatomical differences in the two kinds of eyes.

The findings help scientists understand how a structure as complex as the eye could change gradually through evolution, yet remain functional.

The findings also offer a lesson in how seemingly simple genetic changes in the brain and nervous system could produce the multiple evolutionary changes seen in more advanced brains, without compromising function.

Analysis for this study was performed at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The primates were housed at the Centro Nacional de Primates in Brazil. Contributing researchers at Cornell University and Universidade Federal do Pará, Brazil, approved all procedures. The researchers published their findings in the early online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The molecular, cellular and genetic pathways that coordinate proliferation during development have been fine-tuned since the first multicellular organisms emerged millions of years ago,” said Michael Dyer, Ph.D., member of St. Jude Developmental Neurobiology and the paper’s first author. “When these pathways are deregulated during human development, one of the consequences is childhood cancer. Therefore, by studying how changes in the regulation of proliferation during development can lead to dramatic changes in form and function during evolution, we can gain a deeper understanding of these ancient pathways that lie at the heart of many pediatric cancers.”

The owl monkey’s eye has numerous adaptations to make it effective for nocturnal (active during the night) function. For example, it has a greater number of rod photoreceptor cells than the capuchin monkey, which is diurnal (active during the day). Rod cells are the most light-sensitive cells in the retina making them effective for nighttime vision. The owl monkey’s nocturnal retina is also larger and lacks a fovea, the central region of high-density cone photoreceptors that gives the diurnal eye high acuity and daytime color vision.

For both owl and capuchin monkeys, the specialized cell types in the eye all develop in the growing embryo from a single type of immature cell, called a retinal progenitor cell.

“These two species evolved about 15 million years ago from a common ancestor that had a diurnal eye,” Dyer said. “So, we believe that comparing how their eyes develop during embryonic growth could help us understand what evolutionary changes would be required to evolve from a diurnal to a nocturnal eye.”

The researchers hypothesized that only speeding up or slowing down the proliferation of the progenitor cells in the developing embryo might actually change the types of cells that they became. Thus, the evolutionary adaptation from diurnal to nocturnal eye might require no more than a modest genetic change that affected that timing.

Such a concept—that timing of cell proliferation might profoundly affect anatomy—has broader implications for understanding how the complex human brain evolved from simpler mammalian brains, Dyer said. In earlier comparative studies of the brains of more than 100 mammalian species, the study’s first author, Barbara Finlay, Ph.D., of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, had found that those parts of the brain that are disproportionately larger in more complex brains develop last during embryonic growth.

“This finding suggested that changes in the growth of the brain during embryonic development could be a mechanism for evolutionary change,” Dyer said. “In other words, maybe the parts of the human brain that are bigger than in other mammals are bigger simply because the period of their growth is extended during fetal development.”

In their analysis, Dyer and his colleagues compared the timing of retinal progenitor cell proliferation into the different types of mature retinal cells in owl and capuchin monkey embryos. They found evidence that the extended period of progenitor cell proliferation in the owl monkey eye did, indeed, give rise to the different population of retinal cells that made the eye specially adapted for nocturnal vision.

They also found evidence that this extended period of proliferation also caused the size of the eye to be larger, which is necessary for the eye to accommodate the larger light-gathering and light-sensing structures necessary for nocturnal vision.

“The beauty of the evolutionary mechanism we have identified is that it enables the eye to almost toggle back and forth between a nocturnal and a diurnal structure,” Dyer said. “It is an elegant system that gives the eye a lot of flexibility in terms of specialization.”

More broadly, Dyer said, the finding offers support for the idea that important changes in brain structure can evolve via simple genetic changes that affect the timing of development of brain regions.

Other authors of this paper are Rodrigo Martins (St. Jude); Manoel da Silva Filho and Luiz Carlos Silveira (Universidade Federal do Pará, Brazil); Jose Augusto Muniz (Centro Nacional de Primatas, Brazil); and Constance Cepko (Harvard Medical School).

This research was supported in part by The National Science Foundation.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Founded by late entertainer Danny Thomas and based in Memphis, Tenn., St. Jude freely shares its discoveries with scientific and medical communities around the world. No family ever pays for treatments not covered by insurance, and families without insurance are never asked to pay. St. Jude is financially supported by ALSAC, its fundraising organization. For more information, please visit

St. Jude Public Relations | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Make way for the mini flying machines
21.03.2018 | American Chemical Society

nachricht New 4-D printer could reshape the world we live in
21.03.2018 | American Chemical Society

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

TRAPPIST-1 planets provide clues to the nature of habitable worlds

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

The search for dark matter widens

21.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Natural enemies reduce pesticide use

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>