Early evolution of vertebrate photoreception: lessons from lampreys and lungfishes Academic Article uri icon


  • Lampreys (Agnatha) and lungfish (Dipnoi) are representatives of the earliest and the intermediate stages in vertebrate evolution, respectively, and survived in the Cambrian (approximately 540 mA, lampreys) and Devonian (approximately 400 mA, lungfishes) Periods. The unique phylogenetic position of these two groups presents us with an exciting opportunity to understand life in ancient times and to begin to trace the evolution of vision and photoreception in vertebrates. Using a multidisciplinary approach employing anatomical and molecular techniques, the evolution of photoreception is explored in these extant, living fossils to predict the environmental lighting conditions to which our vertebrate ancestors were exposed. Contrary to expectations, the retinae of the southern hemisphere lamprey (Geotria australis Gray, 1851) and the Australian lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri Krefft, 1870) are far from "primitive," each possessing five types of photoreceptors, many with spectral filters for tuning the light. Detailed ultrastructural analysis reveals that all five receptor types in G. australis are cone-like, whereas N. forsteri possesses four cone types and a single type of rod. Each receptor type also contains a different visual pigment (opsin gene); that is, LWS, SWS1, SWS2, RhA and RhB in G. australis and LWS, SWS1, SWS2, Rh1 and Rh2 in N. forsteri, all of which are expressed within the retina and are sensitive to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, providing the potential for pentachromatic and tetrachromatic color vision, respectively.

publication date

  • March 2009