Remember arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins’ assertion:
Any engineer would naturally assume that the photocells [of the optical device, or eye] would point towards the light, with their wires leading backwards towards the brain. He would laugh at any suggestion that the photocells might point away from the light, with their wires departing on the side nearest the light. Yet this is exactly what happens in all vertebrate retinas. Each photocell is, in effect, wired in backwards, with its wire sticking out on the side nearest the light. The wire has to travel over the surface of the retina, to a point where it dives through a hole in the retina (the so-called ‘blind spot’) to join the optic nerve. This means that the light, instead of being granted an unrestricted passage to the photocells, has to pass through a forest of connecting wires, presumably suffering at least some attenuation and distortion (actually probably not much but, still, it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!).” (Dawkins R., “The Blind Watchmaker,” 1991, reprint, p93).
It’s old news (2007) that “backwards wiring” in the retina does not present a problem; Muller glial cells act as fiber optic cables to deliver light right through to the eye’s photoreceptors:
Although biological cells are mostly transparent, they are phase objects that differ in shape and refractive index. Any image that is projected through layers of randomly oriented cells will normally be distorted by refraction, reflection, and scattering. Counterintuitively, the retina of the vertebrate eye is inverted with respect to its optical function and light must pass through several tissue layers before reaching the light-detecting photoreceptor cells. Here we report on the specific optical properties of glial cells present in the retina, which might contribute to optimize this apparently unfavorable situation. We investigated intact retinal tissue and individual Müller cells, which are radial glial cells spanning the entire retinal thickness. Müller cells have an extended funnel shape, a higher refractive index than their surrounding tissue, and are oriented along the direction of light propagation. Transmission and reflection confocal microscopy of retinal tissue in vitro and in vivo showed that these cells provide a low-scattering passage for light from the retinal surface to the photoreceptor cells. Using a modified dual-beam laser trap we could also demonstrate that individual Müller cells act as optical fibers. Furthermore, their parallel array in the retina is reminiscent of fiberoptic plates used for low-distortion image transfer. Thus, Müller cells seem to mediate the image transfer through the vertebrate retina with minimal distortion and low loss. This finding elucidates a fundamental feature of the inverted retina as an optical system and ascribes a new function to glial cells. (open access)
However, the latest is that Muller cells can also concentrate light and deliver it directly to cones, to improve day vision:
Zooming in on guinea pig retinas under a confocal microscope, the researchers found that each Müller cell was coupled to an individual cone photoreceptor, and that nearly 90 percent of all cone cells were linked to Müller cells. The optical-fiber effect could increase the number of photons reaching a single cone cell nearly 11-fold at its peak concentrating power, but had only a minimal effect on the light reaching rod cells.
“How optimal light guidance is matched to the absorption spectra of the cone photoreceptors is very surprising,” says Franze, who was not involved with this study. Diameter and refractive index are the “two factors [that] determine the color that optical fibers can guide efficiently,” says Labin. “Our immediate next step is to understand the exact mechanism that creates this special phenomenon.”
Here’s the abstract:
Vision starts with the absorption of light by the retinal photoreceptors—cones and rods. However, due to the ‘inverted’ structure of the retina, the incident light must propagate through reflecting and scattering cellular layers before reaching the photoreceptors. It has been recently suggested that Müller cells function as optical fibres in the retina, transferring light illuminating the retinal surface onto the cone photoreceptors. Here we show that Müller cells are wavelength-dependent wave-guides, concentrating the green-red part of the visible spectrum onto cones and allowing the blue-purple part to leak onto nearby rods. This phenomenon is observed in the isolated retina and explained by a computational model, for the guinea pig and the human parafoveal retina. Therefore, light propagation by Müller cells through the retina can be considered as an integral part of the first step in the visual process, increasing photon absorption by cones while minimally affecting rod-mediated vision. (You have to pay to read the article.)
The “bad design” argument gets worse every time we hear about it.
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