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Agonist-Independent, High Constitutive Activity of the Human Melanocortin 1 Receptor


* Address reprint requests to Dr Celia Jiménez-Cervantes, Department Biochemistry and Molecular Biology School of Medicine, University of Murcia, 30071-Espinardo (Murcia), Spain. E-mail:


The melanocortins (α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone and adrenocorticotropin) act on epidermal melanocytes to increase melanogenesis, the eumelanin/pheomelanin ratio and dendricity. These actions are mediated by the heptahelical melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), positively coupled to adenylyl cyclase. Gain-of-function mouse Mc1r alleles are associated with a dark, eumelanic coat. Conversely, loss-of-function variants, or overexpression of agouti, a natural melanocortin antagonist, yield yellow, pheomelanic furs. In humans, loss-of-function MC1R variants are associated with fair skin, poor tanning, propensity to freckle and increased skin cancer risk. Therefore, MC1R is a key regulator of mammalian pigmentation. Several observations such as induction of constitutive pigmentation in amelanotic mouse melanoma cells following expression of MC1R indicate that the receptor might display agonist-independent activity. We report a systematic and comparative study of MC1R and Mc1r constitutive activity. We show that expression of MC1R in heterologous systems leads to an agonist-independent increase in cyclic adenosine monophophate (cAMP). Basal signalling is a function of receptor expression and is two to fourfold higher for MC1R than for Mc1r. Moreover, it is observed in human melanoma cells over-expressing the MC1R. Constitutive signalling is abolished or reduced by point mutations of MC1R impairing the response to agonists, and is only doubled by the Lys94Glu mutation, mimicking the constitutively active mouse Eso-3J allele. Stable or transient expression of wild-type MC1R, but not of loss-of-function mutants, potently stimulates forskolin activation of adenylyl cyclase, a common feature of constitutively active Gs-coupled receptors. Therefore, human MC1R displays a strong agonist-independent constitutive activity.