Melanogenesis and associated cytotoxic reactions: applications to insect innate immunity

Insect Biochem Mol Biol. 2005 May;35(5):443-59. doi: 10.1016/j.ibmb.2005.01.014.


Insects transmit the causative agents for such debilitating diseases as malaria, lymphatic filariases, sleeping sickness, Chagas' disease, leishmaniasis, river blindness, Dengue, and yellow fever. The persistence of these diseases provides testimony to the genetic capacity of parasites to evolve strategies that ensure their successful development in two genetically diverse host species: insects and mammals. Current efforts to address the problems posed by insect-borne diseases benefit from a growing understanding of insect and mammalian immunity. Of considerable interest are recent genomic investigations that show several similarities in the innate immune effector responses and associated regulatory mechanisms manifested by insects and mammals. One notable exception, however, is the nearly universal presence of a brown-black pigment accompanying cellular innate immunity in insects. This response, which is unique to arthropods and certain other invertebrates, has focused attention on the elements involved in pigment synthesis as causing or contributing to the death of the parasite, and has even prompted speculation that the enzyme cascade mediating melanogenesis constitutes an ill-defined recognition mechanism. Experimental evidence defining the role of melanin and its precursors in insect innate immunity is severely lacking. A great deal of what is known about melanogenesis comes from studies of the process occurring in mammalian systems, where the pigment is synthesized by such diverse cells as those comprising portions of the skin, hair, inner ear, brain, and retinal epithelium. Fortunately, many of the components in the metabolic pathways leading to the formation of melanin have been found to be common to both insects and mammals. This review examines some of the factors that influence enzyme-mediated melanogenic responses, and how these responses likely contribute to blood cell-mediated, target-specific cytotoxicity in immune challenged insects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Host-Parasite Interactions / immunology*
  • Immunity, Cellular*
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Insecta / immunology*
  • Melanins / immunology*


  • Melanins