The action two genetic loci--agouti and the melanocortin receptor-1 (Mc1r)-- have opposing effects in the control of mammalian pigmentation and ultimately determine the color of the pigment produced. In a recent paper, Ollmann et al. confirmed that the agouti protein acts via the Mc1r. They show that high-affinity binding of the agouti protein to Mc1r expressed in mammalian cells can be inhibited by the receptor's natural ligand, alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH). In addition, genetic studies using mice carrying mutations at the Mc1r and agouti loci on a sensitized background of low tyrosinase expression confirm that a functional Mc1r is required for the maximum pigmentary effect of agouti. Thus, the Mc1r appears to be a unique, bifunctionally controlled receptor, activated by alpha-MSH and antagonized by agouti, both of which contribute to the variability seen in mammalian coat color.