Image from 2009 Hoppenrath et al, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License

Take a moment to consider the complexity of the human eye. Now, envision a single-celled organism that also contains this extremely complex and sophisticated organ.

Far from imaginary, the warnowiid fits this exact description. Warnowiids are dinoflagellates, a type of single-celled organism known for their diversity and complexity. In a recent study, scientists utilized microscopy and several types of DNA analysis to understand the evolutionary process that created such an organism. The eye is likely to be a product of a symbiotic relationship between red algae and dinoflagellates. Specialized structures capable of converting light into usable energy were incorporated from the algae into the dinoflagellates. These structures later evolved the capability of signaling to the warnowiid about it surroundings.

One has to wonder why a single-celled organism would need to see in so much detail. Currently, scientists believe that the eye can detect polarize light, assisting the warnowiid in detecting transparent prey. More investigation into the eye’s engineering and signaling processes is necessary to inform scientists about its functionality and purpose. Unfortunately, experiments with warnowiids are very difficult because of their rarity in the wild.

From an evolutionary perspective, the warnowiid eye also fits into a much larger story about the creation of extremely complex organs. For example, the human eye seems impossibly complicated, until one considers the vast number of other organisms with eyes. The varying complexity and diversity of eyes found in nature allows scientists to infer about the step-by-step process for developing such a sophisticated organ.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Holly Elmore, a graduate student in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, for providing her expertise and commentary on the subject.

Managing Correspondent: Karri DiPetrillo

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