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Keywords:

  • Melanocyte;
  • Melanogenesis;
  • Hypopigmentary disorders

Many specific gene products are sequentially made and utilized by the melanocyte as it emigrates from its embryonic origin, migrates into specific target sites, synthesizes melanin(s) within a specialized organelle, transfers pigment granules to neighboring cells, and responds to various exogenous cues. A mutation in many of the respective encoding genes can disrupt this process of melanogenesis and can result in hypopigmentary disorders. Following are examples highlighting this scenario. A subset of neural crest derived cells emigrate from the dorsal surface of the neural tube, become committed to the melanoblast lineage, and are targeted along the dorsal lateral pathway. The specific transcription factors PAX3 and MITF (microphthalmia transcription factor) appear to play a regulatory role in early embryonic development of the pigment system and in associated diseases (the Waardenburg syndromes). During the subsequent development and commitment of the melanoblast, concomitant expression of the receptors for fibroblasts growth factor (FGFR2), endothelin-B (EDNRB), and steel factor (cKIT) also appears essential for the continued survival of migrating melanoblasts. Lack or dysfunction of these receptors result in Apert syndrome, Hirschsprung syndrome and piebaldism, respectively. Once the melanocyte resides in its target tissue, a plethora of melanocyte specific enzymes and structural proteins are coordinately expressed to form the melanosome and to convert tyrosine to melanin within it. Mutations in the genes encoding these proteins results in a family of congenital hypopigmentary diseases called oculocutaneous albinism (OCA). The tyrosinase gene family of proteins (tyrosinase, TRP1, and TRP2) regulate the type of eumelanin synthesized and mutations affecting them result in OCA1, OCA3, and slaty (in the murine system), respectively. The P protein, with 12 transmembrane domains localized to the melanosome, has no assigned function as of yet but is responsible for OCA2 when dysfunctional. There are other genetically based syndromes, phenotypically resembling albinism, in which the synthesis of pigmented melanosomes, as well as specialized organelles of other cell types, is compromised. The Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome (HPS) and the Chediak-Higashi syndrome (CHS) are two such disorders. Eventually, the functional melanocyte must be maintained in the tissue throughout life. In some cases it is lost either normally or pre-maturely. White hair results in the absence of melanocytes repopulating the germinative hair follicle during subsequent anagen stages. Vitiligo, in contrast, results from the destruction and removal of the melanocyte in the epidermis and mucous membranes.