Colour patterns are prominent features of many animals and have important functions in communication, such as camouflage, kin recognition and mate choice. As targets for natural as well as sexual selection, they are of high evolutionary significance. The molecular mechanisms underlying colour pattern formation in vertebrates are not well understood. Progress in transgenic tools, in vivo imaging and the availability of a large collection of mutants make the zebrafish (Danio rerio) an attractive model to study vertebrate colouration. Zebrafish display golden and blue horizontal stripes that form during metamorphosis as mosaics of yellow xanthophores, silvery or blue iridophores and black melanophores in the hypodermis. Lineage tracing revealed the origin of the adult pigment cells and their individual cellular behaviours during the formation of the striped pattern. Mutant analysis indicated that interactions between all three pigment cell types are required for the formation of the pattern, and a number of cell surface molecules and signalling systems have been identified as mediators of these interactions. The understanding of the mechanisms that underlie colour pattern formation is an important step towards deciphering the genetic basis of variation in evolution.
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