The life cycle of the sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus, includes two metamorphoses. At the end of a period spent as a blind larva, buried in the mud of streams, a first metamorphosis prepares it to migrate downstream to the sea or a lake for its growth phase. Then, following a second metamorphosis, it migrates upstream as a sexually mature adult to spawn and die.

The downstream migrants have a visual system based upon rhodopsin and vitamin A1, whereas that of the upstream migrants is based upon porphyropsin and vitamin A2. The livers contain vitamin A1 at all stages.

The sea lamprey therefore exhibits a metamorphosis of visual systems, like those observed earlier among amphibia. The presence of porphyropsin in this member of the most primitive living group of vertebrates, as in fishes and amphibia, supports the notion that porphyropsin may have been the primitive vertebrate visual pigment. Its association with fresh water existence throughout this range of organisms also is consistent with the view that the vertebrate stock originated in fresh water. The observation that in the life cycle of the lamprey rhodopsin precedes porphyropsin is not at variance with the idea that porphyropsin is the more primitive pigment, since this change is part of the second metamorphosis, marking the return to the original environment. The observation that in lampreys, fishes, and amphibia, porphyropsin maintains the same general association with fresh water, and rhodopsin with marine and terrestrial habit, suggests that a single genetic mechanism may govern this association throughout this wide span of organisms.

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