Scientists have identified a genetic mutation that causes part of the eye to be missing at birth - a condition accounting for up to 10 per cent of all childhood blindness.
The findings may help explain how genes contribute to development of the eye, researchers said.
The mutation was identified in patients with a disease known as ocular coloboma, which cause a distinctive keyhole- shaped pupil as it commonly results in a missing segment in the iris, the coloured part of the eye.
Ocular coloboma accounts for up to 10 per cent of all childhood blindness. Sight loss in coloboma in children can be devastating.
Few genetic causes have so far been found to explain the cause of coloboma.
Using state-of-the-art genetic screening known as whole exome sequencing, the scientists revealed mutations in 10 genes, three of which were linked to activity of one molecule.
The molecule, known as actin, is important to a number of vital cell functions, including maintenance of the cytoskeleton, which defines cell shape and structure.
Targeted gene sequencing was then carried out on a further 380 people with coloboma. This showed that one of the mutations - a specific alteration in the gene ACTG1 - recurred across a number of those tested.
The scientists edited this ACTG1 mutation into a line of mice using CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology, and found that it had severe effects on the function of actin.
The newly-identified mutations are thought to affect how actin binds to other proteins and on actin stability, which could severely affect development of the eye in the womb, scientists said.
Coloboma can have profound effects on visual ability, but it is very variable and therefore likely to be caused by a number of genes.
Our work adds knowledge to our understanding of its onset as well as the importance of actin to eye development, researchers said.
The research was published in the journal Human Mutation.