Home Magazines Editors-in-Chief FAQs Contact Us

The melanocyte in vertebrate evolution

Journal of Dermatology & Cosmetology
David John Mackay Smith


The evolution of the mammalian pigment cell, the melanocyte, is linked to the evolution of the neural crest cells, from which they derive. These cells allowed sessile filter-feeding ancestors to evolve into an active, mobile predator. As a part of this more mobile predatory system the melanocyte provided, at the periphery, both camouflage and protection from increased ultraviolet radiation exposure associated with this more active life-style.
It is proposed that these first cells originated from a progenitor of pigmented photoreceptors in an extinct organism. A pigment cell as an accompaniment of a photoreceptor cell in a two celled proto-eye. With changing environmental and photoreception needs the pigmented cell was given new roles. A more sophisticated camera-like eye was evolving from placodes in the head to provide more detailed photoreception. It, however retains genetic and mechanistic links to its ancient invertebrate relatives. The ability of the melanocyte to synthesise melanin has given it the opportunity to be co-opted to new applications in keeping with vertebrate evolution, moving from the central nervous system to its new sensory and protective role in the skin.


melanocyte, neural crest, photoreception, proto-eye evolution, melanin, peripheral sensors, camouflage, neuroepithelial progenitors, crest specifiers