Diversity of pigmentation in cultured human melanocytes is due to differences in the type as well as quantity of melanin

Pigment Cell Res. 2006 Apr;19(2):154-62. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0749.2006.00293.x.


Cultured human melanocytes differ tremendously in visual pigmentation, and recapitulate the pigmentary phenotype of the donor's skin. This diversity arises from variation in type as well as quantity of melanin produced. Here, we measured contents of eumelanin (EM) and pheomelanin (PM) in 60 primary human melanocyte cultures (51 neonatal and nine adults), and correlated some of these values with the respective activity and protein levels of tyrosinase, and the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) genotype. Melanocytes were classified into four phenotypes (L, L+, D, D+) as depicted by visual pigmentation using light microscopy, and by the pigmentary phenotype of the donor's skin. There were large differences in total melanin (TM) and EM, which increased progressively for L, L+, D and D+ melanocytes. TM content, the sum of EM and PM, showed a good correlation with TM measured spectrophotometrically, and with the activity and protein levels of tyrosinase. Log EM/PM ratio did not correlate with MC1R genotype. We conclude that: (i) EM consistently correlates with the visual phenotype; (ii) lighter melanocytes tend to be more pheomelanic in composition than darker melanocytes; (iii) in adult melanocyte cultures, EM correlates with the ethnic background of the donors (African-American > Indian > Caucasian); and (iv) MC1R loss-of-function mutations do not necessarily alter the phenotype of cultured melanocytes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Melanins / analysis
  • Melanins / metabolism*
  • Melanocytes / chemistry
  • Melanocytes / cytology
  • Melanocytes / metabolism*
  • Mutation
  • Phenotype
  • Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Racial Groups
  • Receptor, Melanocortin, Type 1 / genetics
  • Receptor, Melanocortin, Type 1 / metabolism*


  • Melanins
  • Receptor, Melanocortin, Type 1
  • pheomelanin
  • eumelanin