Previously, split-thickness human skin grafted onto athymic mice has been shown to become markedly hyperpigmented, but the factor(s) responsible for this hyperpigmentation had not been isolated. The present study describes the isolation and characterization of a potent melanogenic inhibitor from grafted human skin. Extracts from grafted skin inhibited, in a concentration-dependent manner, tyrosinase activity of normal human melanocytes and of Cloudman S91 murine melanoma in culture. Sodium dodecylsulfate-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis analysis of extracts from pre- and post-grafted skin demonstrated the presence of a protein doublet of approximately 14 kD exclusively in the post-grafted skin. This protein inhibited both tyrosinase activity and cellular proliferation in a concentration-dependent manner. The inhibition of tyrosinase activity in normal human melanocytes was 53% at 0.5 microgram/ml concentration, whereas this inhibition was almost complete in murine melanoma cultures at 1.0 microgram/ml. The protein did not inhibit either cellular proliferation or protein synthesis in normal human fibroblast cultures, and therefore may act specifically on melanocytes. Injections of the inhibitor corresponded with a delay and reduction in the quantity of pigment in human skin 2 weeks after grafting. Multiple injections of the inhibitor into the hyperpigmented xenografts (20 weeks after grafting) reversed the hyperpigmentation with no observable inflammatory or toxic responses. The results indicate that hyperpigmented human skin xenografts contain a potent inhibitor of melanogenesis and melanocyte proliferation.