Evolution of albinism in cave planthoppers by a convergent defect in the first step of melanin biosynthesis


Author for correspondence (email: Jeffery@umd.edu)


Albinism, the reduction or loss of melanin pigment, is found in many diverse cave-dwelling animals. The mechanisms responsible for loss of melanin pigment are poorly understood. In this study we use a melanogenic substrate assay to determine the position where melanin synthesis is blocked in independently evolved cave planthoppers from Hawaii and Croatia. In this assay, substrates of enzymes responsible for melanin biosynthesis are added to fixed specimens in vitro and their ability to rescue black melanin pigmentation is determined. L-tyrosine, the first substrate in the pathway, did not produce melanin pigment, whereas L-DOPA, the second substrate, restored black pigment. Substrates in combination with enzyme inhibitors were used to test the possibility of additional downstream defects in the pathway. The results showed that downstream reactions leading from L-DOPA and dopamine to DOPA-melanin and dopamine-melanin, the two types of insect melanin, are functional. It is concluded that albinism is caused by a defect in the first step of the melanin synthesis pathway in cave-adapted planthoppers from widely separated parts of the world. However, Western blots indicated that tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), the only enzyme shown to operate at the first step in insects, is present in Hawaiian cave planthoppers. Thus, an unknown factor(s) operating at this step may be important in the evolution of planthopper albinism. In the cavefish Astyanax mexicanus, a genetic defect has also been described at the first step of melanin synthesis suggesting convergent evolution of albinism in both cave-adapted insects and teleosts.