Some 600 million years ago a freshwater animal called a Hydra -- kin to corals and jellyfish --developed light-receptive genes that scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara say were the origin of animal vision.
Researchers studied the genes associated with vision (called opsins) in these tiny creatures and found opsin proteins all over their bodies. Though they don't have eyes or any specific light-receptive organs, researchers believe the light-sensing proteins concentrated in the mouth area of the Hydras help them to use light sensitivity to search out prey.
The scientists were able to pinpoint the Precambrian date that animal vision first started to evolve because studies of animals that evolved earlier don't reveal similar light sensitivity.
"We now have a time frame for the evolution of animal light sensitivity," said study leader David Plachetzki, a UC Santa Barbara graduate student. "We know its precursors existed roughly 600 million years ago.
These findings, detailed in a recent issue of the online journal PLoS ONE, counter arguments by anti-evolutionists that evolution can only eliminate traits and cannot produce new features, the authors say.
"Our paper shows that such claims are simply wrong," explained co-author Todd Oakley, also a UC Santa Barbara biologist. "We show very clearly that specific mutational changes in a particular duplicated gene (opsin) allowed the new genes to interact with different proteins in new ways. Today, these different interactions underlie the genetic machinery of vision, which is different in various animal groups."