Biologists have discovered that the presence of a key protein in the compound eyes of the fruit fly (which glow at their center due to a fluorescent protein) allows the formation of distinct light gathering units in each of its 800 unit eyes, an evolutionary change to an “open system” that enabled insects to make significant improvements in visual acuity and angular sensitivity. In contrast, beetles, bees and many mosquito species have the light-gathering units fused together into a “closed system.”
In a paper published in this week's early online edition of the journal Nature, the scientists report that one of three proteins needed to form these light gathering units is present in the visual system of fruit flies, house flies and other insects with open eye systems, but conspicuously absent in beetles, bees and other species with closed systems. The researchers showed that the loss of this protein, called “spacemaker,” can convert the eyes of fruitflies—which normally have open eye systems—into a closed one. In contrast, the introduction of spacemaker into eyes with a closed system transformed them into an open one.