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Natasha Picciani

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Complex biological traits often originate by integrating previously separate parts, but the organismal functions of these precursors are challenging to infer. If we can understand the ancestral functions of these precursors, it could help explain how they persisted and how they facilitated the origins of complex traits. Animal eyes are some of the best studied complex traits, and they include many parts, such as opsin-based photoreceptor cells, pigment cells, and lens cells. Eye evolution is understood through conceptual models that argue these parts gradually came together to support increasingly sophisticated visual functions. Despite the well accepted logic of these conceptual models, explicit comparative studies to identify organismal functions of eye-precursors are lacking. Here, we investigate how precursors functioned before they became part of eyes in Cnidaria, a group formed by sea anemones, corals and jellyfish. Specifically, we test whether ancestral photoreceptor cells regulated the discharge of cnidocytes, the expensive single-use cells with various uses including prey capture, locomotion, and protection. Similar to a previous study of Hydra, we show an additional four distantly related cnidarian groups discharge significantly more cnidocytes when exposed to dim blue light compared to bright blue light. Our comparative analyses support the hypothesis that the cnidarian ancestor was capable of modulating cnidocyte discharge with light. Although eye-precursors might have had other functions like regulating timing of spawning, our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that photoreceptor cells which mediate cnidocyte discharge predated eyes, perhaps facilitating the prolific origination of eyes in Cnidaria.