Post-embryonic nerve-associated precursors to adult pigment cells: genetic requirements and dynamics of morphogenesis and differentiation

PLoS Genet. 2011 May;7(5):e1002044. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002044. Epub 2011 May 19.


The pigment cells of vertebrates serve a variety of functions and generate a stunning variety of patterns. These cells are also implicated in human pathologies including melanoma. Whereas the events of pigment cell development have been studied extensively in the embryo, much less is known about morphogenesis and differentiation of these cells during post-embryonic stages. Previous studies of zebrafish revealed genetically distinct populations of embryonic and adult melanophores, the ectotherm homologue of amniote melanocytes. Here, we use molecular markers, vital labeling, time-lapse imaging, mutational analyses, and transgenesis to identify peripheral nerves as a niche for precursors to adult melanophores that subsequently migrate to the skin to form the adult pigment pattern. We further identify genetic requirements for establishing, maintaining, and recruiting precursors to the adult melanophore lineage and demonstrate novel compensatory behaviors during pattern regulation in mutant backgrounds. Finally, we show that distinct populations of latent precursors having differential regenerative capabilities persist into the adult. These findings provide a foundation for future studies of post-embryonic pigment cell precursors in development, evolution, and neoplasia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation*
  • Cell Lineage
  • Cell Shape*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental*
  • Larva / genetics
  • Larva / metabolism
  • Melanophores / cytology
  • Melanophores / metabolism
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Pigmentation*
  • Receptor, ErbB-3 / genetics
  • Receptor, ErbB-3 / metabolism
  • Zebrafish / genetics*
  • Zebrafish / growth & development*
  • Zebrafish / metabolism


  • Receptor, ErbB-3