Human skin pigmentation, migration and disease susceptibility

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Mar 19;367(1590):785-92. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0308.


Human skin pigmentation evolved as a compromise between the conflicting physiological demands of protection against the deleterious effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and photosynthesis of UVB-dependent vitamin D(3). Living under high UVR near the equator, ancestral Homo sapiens had skin rich in protective eumelanin. Dispersals outside of the tropics were associated with positive selection for depigmentation to maximize cutaneous biosynthesis of pre-vitamin D(3) under low and highly seasonal UVB conditions. In recent centuries, migrations and high-speed transportation have brought many people into UVR regimes different from those experienced by their ancestors and, accordingly, exposed them to new disease risks. These have been increased by urbanization and changes in diet and lifestyle. Three examples-nutritional rickets, multiple sclerosis (MS) and cutaneous malignant melanoma (CMM)-are chosen to illustrate the serious health effects of mismatches between skin pigmentation and UVR. The aetiology of MS in particular provides insight into complex and contingent interactions of genetic and environmental factors necessary to trigger lethal disease states. Low UVB levels and vitamin D deficiencies produced by changes in location and lifestyle pose some of the most serious disease risks of the twenty-first century.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological / physiology
  • Disease Susceptibility / physiopathology*
  • Emigration and Immigration
  • Humans
  • Melanoma / epidemiology
  • Melanoma / etiology*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / epidemiology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / etiology*
  • Rickets / epidemiology
  • Rickets / etiology*
  • Skin Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Skin Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Skin Pigmentation / physiology*
  • Ultraviolet Rays / adverse effects*
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / epidemiology
  • Vitamin D Deficiency / etiology