University of Leicester research receives international recognition

Palaeobiology expert to appear on French TV programme.

The Secret History of our Evolution, the French equivalent of BBC’s Horizon programme, is showcasing ground-breaking research on the evolution of vertebrate eyes from Professor Sarah Gabbott in our School of Geography, Geology and Environment.

Professor Gabbott will appear on the show, airing today (Thursday 21 February), to discuss how her research overturned a long-standing theory on how vertebrates evolved their eyes by identifying remarkable details of the retina in the eyes of 300 million year-old lamprey and hagfish fossils.

The programme explores how fossil hagfish eyes were well-developed, indicating that the ancient animal could see, whereas their living counterparts are completely blind after millions of years of eye degeneration – a kind of reverse evolution.

The research was made possible by using a high-powered scanning electron microscope to magnify the eye 5,000 times. This enabled them to see that the fossil retina is composed of minute structures called melanosomes - the same structures that occur in human eyes and prevent stray light bouncing around in the eye allowing us to form a clear visual image.

Professor Gabbott said: “The program shows how new fossil evidence bears on an iconic evolutionary problem: the early evolution of the vertebrate eye. Sight is perhaps our most cherished sense but its evolution in vertebrates is enigmatic and a cause célèbre for creationists. We will now scrutinise the eyes of other ancient vertebrate fossils to see if we can finally build a picture of the sequence of events that took place in early vertebrate eye evolution.”