The function of melanin or six blind people examine an elephant

Bioessays. 1992 Jan;14(1):49-56. doi: 10.1002/bies.950140111.


The pigment melanin is found in all living kingdoms and in many different structures and forms. When its various functions are examined separately, its behaviors seem disparate and conflicting. It has a clear role in camouflage and sexual display. Other major roles are examined critically. It can act as a sun screen but is not a very effective one. It can also scavenge active chemical species, but this, too, is not done very effectively. It produces active radicals that can damage DNA. It binds to drugs in ways that are either beneficial or deleterious. Aside from camouflage, its other roles can be brought together by a unifying hypothesis as first proposed by Proctor and McGinness nearly 20 years ago. Melanin is envisaged as an energy transducer with the properties of an amorphous semiconductor. It can absorb many different types of energy and dissipate them in the form of heat. However, if the energy input is too great, the output can be expressed in the form of activated chemical species that can damage cellular macromolecules resulting in cell death, mutations and cancer. The protective aspect of melanin in dark skin is seen as resulting from its high concentration and its confinement to ellipsoidal and densely packed organelles that can effectively shield the nucleus. In light skin, its radical nature is seen as potentially participating in the carcinogenic process, particularly when overwhelmed by intense episodes of sunburn.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Damage
  • Electron Transport
  • Free Radical Scavengers
  • Humans
  • Melanins / metabolism
  • Melanins / physiology*
  • Melanins / radiation effects
  • Melanoma / etiology
  • Melanoma / radiotherapy
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / etiology
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism
  • Pigmentation
  • Radiation-Protective Agents
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents
  • Skin Neoplasms / etiology
  • Skin Neoplasms / radiotherapy
  • Skin Pigmentation
  • Ultraviolet Rays


  • Free Radical Scavengers
  • Melanins
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Radiation-Protective Agents
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents