Color patterns are prominent features of many animals; they are highly variable and evolve rapidly leading to large diversities even within a single genus. As targets for natural as well as sexual selection, they are of high evolutionary significance. The zebrafish (Danio rerio) has become an important model organism for developmental biology and biomedical research in general, and it is the model organism to study color pattern formation in vertebrates. The fish display a conspicuous pattern of alternating blue and golden stripes on the body and on the anal and tail fins. This pattern is produced by three different types of pigment cells (chromatophores) arranged in precise layers in the hypodermis of the fish. In this essay, we will summarize the recent advances in understanding the developmental and genetic basis for stripe formation in the zebrafish. We will describe the cellular events leading to the formation of stripes during metamorphosis based on long-term lineage imaging. Mutant analysis has revealed that a number of signaling pathways are involved in the establishment and maintenance of the individual pigment cells. However, the striped pattern itself is generated by self-organizing mechanisms requiring interactions between all three pigment cell types. The involvement of integral membrane proteins, including connexins and potassium channels, suggests that direct physical contacts between chromatophores are involved, and that the directed transport of small molecules or bioelectrical coupling is important for these interactions. This mode of patterning by transmitting spatial information between adjacent tissues within three superimposed cell layers is unprecedented in other developmental systems. We propose that variations in the patterns among Danio species are caused by allelic differences in the genes responsible for these interactions.
Keywords: Cell migration; Color pattern; Contact-mediated cell interactions; Evolution; Genes; Mutations; Pigment cells; Stripe formation; Zebrafish.
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