Genes related to the Drosophila eyes absent gene were identified in vertebrates (mouse and human), mollusks (squid), and nematodes (C. elegans). Proteins encoded by these genes consist of conserved C-terminal and variable N-terminal domains. In the conserved 271-amino acid C-terminal region, Drosophila and vertebrate proteins are 65-67% identical. A vertebrate homolog of eyes absent, designated Eya2, was mapped to Chromosome (Chr) 2 in the mouse and to Chr 20q13.1 in human. Eya2 shows a dynamic pattern of expression during development. In the mouse, expression of Eya2 was first detected in 8.5-day embryos in the region of head ectoderm fated to become the forebrain. At later stages of development, Eya2 is expressed in the olfactory placode and in a variety of neural crest derivatives. In the eye, expression of Eya2 was first detected after formation of the lens vesicle. At day 17.5, the highest level of Eya2 mRNA was observed in primary lens fibers. Low levels of Eya2 expression was detected in retina, sclera, and cornea. By postnatal day 10, Eya2 was expressed in secondary lens fibers, cornea, and retina. Although Eya2 is expressed relatively late in eye development, it belongs to the growing list of factors that may be essential for eye development across metazoan phyla. Like members of the Pax-6 gene family, eyes absent gene family members were probably first involved in functions not related to vision, with recruitment for visual system formation and function occurring later.
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