The Anatomy and Microbiota of the Eye


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Diagram of an eye. Above the eye is the lacrimal gland. At the point nearest the nose is the punctums and tubes leading to the lacrimal sac and nasolacrimal duct.
The lacrimal apparatus includes the structures of the eye associated with tear production and drainage. (credit: modification of work by “Evidence Based Medical Educator Inc.”/YouTube)

OpenStax Microbiology

Although the eye and skin have distinct anatomy, they are both in direct contact with the external environment. An important component of the eye is the nasolacrimal drainage system, which serves as a conduit for the fluid of the eye, called tears. Tears flow from the external eye to the nasal cavity by the lacrimal apparatus, which is composed of the structures involved in tear production. The lacrimal gland, above the eye, secretes tears to keep the eye moist. There are two small openings, one on the inside edge of the upper eyelid and one on the inside edge of the lower eyelid, near the nose. Each of these openings is called a lacrimal punctum. Together, these lacrimal puncta collect tears from the eye that are then conveyed through lacrimal ducts to a reservoir for tears called the lacrimal sac, also known as the dacrocyst or tear sac.

From the sac, tear fluid flows via a nasolacrimal duct to the inner nose. Each nasolacrimal duct is located underneath the skin and passes through the bones of the face into the nose. Chemicals in tears, such as defensins, lactoferrin, and lysozyme, help to prevent colonization by pathogens. In addition, mucins facilitate removal of microbes from the surface of the eye.

The surfaces of the eyeball and inner eyelid are mucous membranes called conjunctiva. The normal conjunctival microbiota has not been well characterized, but does exist. One small study (part of the Ocular Microbiome project) found twelve genera that were consistently present in the conjunctiva. These microbes are thought to help defend the membranes against pathogens. However, it is still unclear which microbes may be transient and which may form a stable microbiota.

Use of contact lenses can cause changes in the normal microbiota of the conjunctiva by introducing another surface into the natural anatomy of the eye. Research is currently underway to better understand how contact lenses may impact the normal microbiota and contribute to eye disease.

The watery material inside of the eyeball is called the vitreous humor. Unlike the conjunctiva, it is protected from contact with the environment and is almost always sterile, with no normal microbiota.

A cross section of the eye. The large spherical center is the vitreous humor. The layer surrounding this is the retina. A projection out of the back of the eye is the optic nerve. A region on the retina just above the optic nerve is the fovea. At the front of the eye is the lens. In front of this is a space labeled pupil. The colored region around the pupil is the iris. The cornea is the covering in front of the iris and pupil. The conjunctiva is a mucous membrane on the eye.
Some microbes live on the conjunctiva of the human eye, but the vitreous humor is sterile.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: