ARTICLE | doi:10.20944/preprints201904.0107.v2
Online: 15 May 2019 (07:47:16 CEST)
Eyes are quintessential complex traits and our understanding of their evolution guides models of trait evolution in general. A long-standing account of eye evolution argues natural selection favors morphological variations that allow increased functionality for sensing light (Darwin 1859; v. Salvini-Plawen and Mayr 1977; Nilsson and Pelger 1994; Nilsson 2013). While certainly true in part, this focus on visual performance does not entirely explain why diffuse photosensitivity persists even after eyes evolve, or why eyes evolved many times, each time using similar building blocks. Here we briefly review a vast literature indicating most genetic components of eyes historically responded to stress caused directly by light, including UV damage of DNA, oxidative stress, and production of aldehydes. We propose light-induced stress had a direct and prominent role in the evolution of eyes by bringing together genes to repair and prevent damage from light-stress, both before and during the evolution of eyes themselves. Stress-repair and stress-prevention genes were perhaps originally deployed as plastic responses to light and/or as beneficial mutations genetically driving expression where light was prominent. These stress-response genes sense, shield, and refract light but only as reactions to ongoing light stress. Once under regulatory-genetic control, they could be expressed before light stress appeared, evolve as a module, and be influenced by natural selection to increase functionality for sensing light, ultimately leading to complex eyes and behaviors. Recognizing the potentially prominent role of stress in eye evolution invites discussions of plasticity and assimilation and provides a hypothesis for why similar genes are repeatedly used in convergent eyes. Broadening the drivers of eye evolution encourages consideration of multi-faceted mechanisms of plasticity/assimilation and mutation/selection for complex novelties and innovations in general.