With the increasing advantages of DNA sequencing, University of Cincinnati (UC) biologists are unraveling many evolutionary mysteries behind the complex world of spider vision. Looking closely at the mysterious genetic blueprint for how spider eyes developed and function is helping researchers see great opportunities for future research. New studies could include gene therapies in humans with visual problems like macular degeneration or retinal cancer. To get to these possibilities, scientists like Nathan Morehouse, PhD, UC Assistant Professor of Biology, had to look to 500 million years ago, to a time called the Cambrian Period, to put the evolution of spider eye genes into perspective. "What we found is that we go from soft-bodied ancient aquatic arthropods with no eyes, or at least eyes that don't fossilize well, to suddenly eyes that look like the eyes that we see on insects and land animals today, with basically nothing in between these stages," says Dr. Morehouse. And by "suddenly," Dr. Morehouse is talking about a small evolutionary period of 50 million years. "But for the fossil record, 50 million years is a very short time to go from no eyes to eyes like we have today," he adds. While primitive spiders and insects came onto land as two totally separate groups, they are likely to have carried with them some of the same developmental patterns for building their eyes. "We can use new genetic evidence from insects as a starting point for identifying important genes that are controlling eye development in spiders," says Dr. Morehouse. "This will excite spider biologists, and people generally interested in vision, into thinking about novel ways of building better vision. We're not quite there in terms of engineering solutions for building organic eyes yet, but hopefully that's in our future."
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