The defense of the ocular surfaces presents an unique challenge in that not only must integrity be maintained against microbial, inflammatory and physical assault, but it must be done while minimizing the risk of loss of corneal transparency. This puts severe limitations on the degree to which scarring or neovascularization can occur in the cornea secondary to any infectious, inflammatory, immunological or wound healing process. Moreover, this defense system must be equally effective under two extremes of conditions: those found in the open eye and the closed eye environments. It is our contention that these constraints have resulted in the evolution of a highly complex fail-safe defense system that utilizes distinctly different strategies in open and closed eye conditions. The extraordinary effectiveness of this system is evidenced by the fact that despite continued exposure to a microbe rich environment, the external ocular surfaces maintain a very low microbial titer and are highly resistant to breaching by all but a few pathogens. It is the intent of this review to provide a working model of this defense system as it operates under both open and closed eye conditions, to provide evidence in support of this model as well as highlight some of the many areas of uncertainty.

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