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Pro-opiomelanocortin gene and melanin-based colour polymorphism in a reptile



Colour polymorphism is widespread among vertebrates and plays important roles in prey–predator interactions, thermoregulation, social competition, and sexual selection. However, the genetic mechanisms involved in colour variation have been studied mainly in domestic mammals and birds, whereas information on wild animals remains scarce. Interestingly, the pro-opiomelanocortin gene (POMC) gives rise to melanocortin hormones that trigger melanogenesis (by binding the melanocortin-1-receptor; Mc1r) and other physiological and behavioural functions (by binding the melanocortin receptors Mc1-5rs). Owing to its pleiotropic effect, the POMC gene could therefore account for the numerous covariations between pigmentation and other phenotypic traits. We screened the POMC and Mc1r genes in 107 wild asp vipers (Vipera aspis) that can exhibit four discrete colour morphs (two unpatterned morphs: concolor or melanistic; two patterned morphs: blotched or lined) in a single population. Our study revealed a correlation between a single nucleotide polymorphism situated within the 3′-untranslated region of the POMC gene and colour variation, whereas Mc1r was not found to be polymorphic. To the best of our knowledge, we disclose for the first time a relationship between a mutation at the POMC gene and coloration in a wild animal, as well as a correlation between a genetic marker and coloration in a snake species. Interestingly, similar mutations within the POMC 3′-untranslated region are linked to human obesity and alcohol and drug dependence. Combined with our results, this suggests that the 3′-untranslated region of the POMC gene may play a role in its regulation in distant vertebrates. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2014, 111, 160–168.