“Modern fish, they don’t have this type of eye-brain connection,” Braasch said. “That’s one of the reasons that people thought it was a new thing in tetrapods.” Zebrafish are a popular model animal, for example, but their eye-brain wiring is very distinct from a human’s. In fact, that helps explain why scientists thought the human connection first evolved in four-limbed terrestrial creatures, or tetrapods. Braasch is one of the world’s leading experts in a different type of fish known as gar. Gar have evolved more slowly than zebrafish, meaning gar are more similar to the last common ancestor shared by fish and humans. These similarities could make gar a powerful animal model for health studies, which is why Braasch and his team are working to better understand gar biology and genetics.
And this work, which was led by researchers at France’s Inserm public research organization, does more than reshape our understanding of the past. It also has implications for future health research. This work, published in the journal Science on April 8, also means that this type of eye-brain connection predates animals living on land. The existing theory had been that this connection first evolved in terrestrial creatures and, from there, carried on into humans where scientists believe it helps with our depth perception and 3D vision.
Studying animal models is an invaluable way for researchers to learn about health and disease, but drawing connections to human conditions from these models can be challenging. “It’s the first time for me that one of our publications literally changes the textbook that I am teaching with,” said Braasch, as assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Natural Science.
In a zebrafish, each eye has one nerve connecting it to the opposite side of the fish’s brain. That is, one nerve connects the left eye to the brain’s right hemisphere and another nerve connects its right eye to the left side of its brain. The other, more “ancient” fish do things differently. They have what’s called ipsilateral or bilateral visual projections. Here, each eye has two nerve connections, one going to either side of the brain, which is also what humans have. To do the study, Chédotal and his colleague, Filippo Del Bene, used a groundbreaking technique to see the nerves connecting eyes to brains in several different fish species. This included the well-studied zebrafish, but also rarer specimens such as Braasch’s gar and Australian lungfish provided by a collaborator at the University of Queensland.
“Without his help, this project wouldn’t have been possible,” said Alain Chédotal, director of research at Inserm and a group leader of the Vision Institute in Paris. “We did not have access to spotted gar, a fish that does not exist in Europe and occupies a key position in the tree of life.” That, in turn, is why Inserm’s researchers sought out Braasch for this study.
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