An adult lens contains two easily discernible, morphologically distinct compartments, the epithelium and the fiber-cell mass. The fiber-cell mass provides the lens with its functional phenotype, transparency. Metabolically, in comparison to the fiber cells the epithelium is the more active compartment of the ocular lens. For the purposes of this review we will only discuss the surface epithelium that covers the anterior face of the adult ocular lens. This single layer of cells, in addition to acting as a metabolic engine that sustains the physiological health of this tissue, also works as a source of stem cells, providing precursor cells, which through molecular and morphological differentiation give rise to fiber cells. Morphological simplicity, defined developmental history and easy access to the experimenter make this epithelium a choice starting material for investigations that seek to address universal questions of cell growth, development, epithelial function, cancer and aging. There are two important aspects of the lens epithelium that make it highly relevant to the modern biologist. Firstly, there are no known clinically recognizable cancers of the ocular lens. Considering that most of the known malignancies are epithelial in origin this observation is more than an academic curiosity. The lack of vasculature in the lens may explain the absence of tumors in this tissue, but this provides only a teleological basis to a very important question for which the answers must reside in the molecular make-up and physiology of the lens epithelial cells. Secondly, lens epithelium as a morphological entity in the human lens is first recognizable in the 5th–6th week of gestation. It stays in this morphological state as the anterior epithelium of the lens for the rest of the life, making it an attractive paradigm for the study of the effects of aging on epithelial function. What follows is a brief overview of the present status and lacunae in our understanding of the biology of the lens epithelium.

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