Page last updated at 07:14 GMT, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Mole eyesight research 'could help human disorders'

Iberian mole
Iberian moles played a part in the Aberdeen study

Findings about the eyesight of moles could offer new understanding of human disorders, researchers have claimed.

The University of Aberdeen team said moles may be seriously short-sighted or have skin covering their eyes but their sight was better than expected.

They suggested moles see light even when their eyes were permanently shut.

The team also said mole eyesight played a crucial role in controlling their body clocks and helped them to mate during the spring.

The research - a three-year project which is part of a longer study of moles - looked at Iberian and European moles.

Our work has shown that there is nothing inherently impossible about the evolution of the eye
Dr Martin Collinson
University of Aberdeen

The University of Aberdeen's Dr Martin Collinson said: "Moles live in the dark, and in the case of the Iberian mole their eyes are covered by skin, so the assumption was that they were blind.

"It has also been assumed that animals that live in the dark will gradually lose their eyes through evolution.

"When we became the first to study moles' retinas we had expected them to be a degenerate mess. However we found that they have fully developed retinas that have all the right cell types for detecting light and which also make all the right connections with their brains."

He added: "In the case of the Iberian mole we found that even though their eyes are permanently shut, they can see and run away from bright light.

"We also we found that moles have masses of a specialised type of retinal cell that is needed to control body clocks.

"We should have listened to the country folk, because as any mole catcher knows, moles get up in the morning, have a nap in the middle of the day and then get active again in the evening, before bed."

'Important clues'

Dr Collinson said: "Our work has shown that, in fact, a partially-formed eye can be very important for the ecology and survival of the animal, and that there is nothing inherently impossible about the evolution of the eye.

"It also highlights the fact that among the animal kingdom there are thousands of species that have not been studied but which may hold important clues for our understanding of human pathology.

"For example there is a type of stem cell in our retinas that could hold the key to repairing retinas after disease or injury that lead to blindness. Although these stem cells are asleep and virtually inactive in humans, in moles they are awake and reactivated.

"If we could work out how moles do that, we would hold a key to human retinal repair."

The findings are being published in the Royal Society's journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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