Corneal development and structure were studied in the Iberian mole Talpa occidentalis, which has permanently closed eyelids, and the European mole Talpa europaea, in which the eyes are open. The vertebrate cornea typically maintains a three-layered structure - a stratified epithelium with protective and sensory function, an avascular, hypocellular, collagenous stroma, and an endothelium with both barrier and transport functions that regulates corneal hydration, hence maintaining transparency. Compared to mouse, both mole species had significant corneal specializations, but the Iberian mole had the most divergent phenotype, with no endothelium and a flattened monolayer epithelium. Nevertheless, normal epithelial cell junctions were observed and corneal transparency was maintained. Corneas of European moles have a dysmorphic phenotype that recapitulates the human disorder keratoconus for which no mouse model exists. Mole corneas are vascularized - a situation only previously observed in the manatee Trichechus- and have non-radial patterns of corneal innervation indicative of failure of corneal epithelial cell migration. The transcription factor Pax6 is required for corneal epithelial differentiation in mice, but was found to be dispensable in moles, which had mosaic patterns of PAX6 localization uniquely restricted, in European moles, to the apical epithelial cells. The apparently stalled or abnormal differentiation of corneas in adult moles is supported by their superficial similarity to the corneas of embryonic or neonatal mice, and their abnormal expression of cytokeratin-12 and cytokeratin-5. European moles seem to have maintained some barrier/protective function in their corneas. However, Iberian moles show a more significant corneal regression likely related to the permanent eyelid fusion. In this mole species, adaptation to the arid, harder, Southern European soils could have favoured the transfer of these functions to the permanently sealed eyelids.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Molecular Biology
- Developmental Biology
- Cell Biology