The makings of transparency

by Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen

As I wonder how to begin this article, I am distractedly examining my fingers. They are not getting younger. A nail or two need a trim, and there is a hint of cracked skin on the tip of one thumb. It occurs to me that I would be unable to notice any of this - and take action - unless I had eyes which can see. Eyes are no doubt one of the most intricate organs shared by animals - save by those, of course, who are born naturally blind like the star-nosed mole or the eyeless shrimp. The transparency of the eye's lens is perhaps one of the most remarkable feats Nature has achieved. It certainly fills you with awe. The lens has to be literally akin to glass. If it is not, light will be helplessly scattered, and all we would be able to see is a distorted image of our surroundings. For almost two centuries now, anatomists have known that the lens is made up of fibrous cells whose organelles have been destroyed so that light can beam through without being dispersed or absorbed. It is only recently, however, that scientists discovered how cell organelles are actually broken down to clear the lens. In mice and probably humans too, the answer is a protein known as PLAAT3 which attacks the characteristic phospholipids that form an organelle's membrane.

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