The inverted retina and the evolution of vertebrates: an evo-devo perspective
The inverted retina is a basic characteristic of the vertebrate eye. This implies that vertebrates must have a common ancestor with an inverted retina. Of the two groups of chordates, cephalochordates have an inverted retina and urochordates a direct retina. Surprisingly, recent genetics studies favor urochordates as the closest ancestor to vertebrates. The evolution of increasingly complex organs such as the eye implies not only tissular but also structural modifications at the organ level. How these configurational modifications give rise to a functional eye at any step is still subject to debate and speculation. Here we propose an orderly sequence of phylogenetic events that closely follows the sequence of developmental eye formation in extant vertebrates. The progressive structural complexity has been clearly recorded during vertebrate development at the period of organogenesis. Matching the chain of increasing eye complexity in Mollusca that leads to the bicameral eye of the octopus and the developmental sequence in vertebrates, we delineate the parallel evolution of the two-chambered eye of vertebrates starting with an early ectodermal eye. This sequence allows for some interesting predictions regarding the eyes of not preserved intermediary species. The clue to understanding the inverted retina of vertebrates and the similarity between the sequence followed by Mollusca and chordates is the notion that the eye in both cases is an ectodermal structure, in contrast to an exclusively (de novo) neuroectodermal origin in the eye of vertebrates. This analysis places cephalochordates as the closest branch to vertebrates contrary to urochordates, claimed as a closer branch by some researchers that base their proposals in a genetic analysis.