Evolution of pigment cell regression in the cavefish Astyanax: a late step in melanogenesis. Academic Article uri icon


  • Pigmentation and eyes are often lost in cave-adapted animals. Although the mechanisms of eye degeneration are beginning to be understood, little is known about the evolutionary and developmental processes involved in pigment cell regression. In teleost embryos, a population of neural crest cells migrates into the body wall and differentiates into melanophores, xanthophores, and iridophores. All three pigment cell types are present in the eyed surface-dwelling form (surface fish) of the teleost Astyanax mexicanus. However, melanophores are absent or substantially reduced in number in various derived populations of the conspecific blind cave-dwelling form (cavefish). We show here that tyrosinase-positive melanoblasts are present in cavefish. DiI labeling revealed a population of trunk neural crest cells in cavefish embryos that migrate to locations normally occupied by differentiated melanophores. We also discovered a cell population in cavefish embryos and adults resembling melanoblasts in several features, including the ability to synthesize melanin when supplied with the tyrosinase substrate l-dopa. DiI-tyrosinase double-labeling and neural keel explant experiments showed that the tyrosinase-positive cells are derived from the neural crest. The number of melanoblasts varies in different adult cavefish populations relative to the extent of melanophore reduction. Although cavefish melanoblasts can synthesize melanin from exogenous l-dopa, they are unable to convert exogenous l-tyrosine to l-dopa and melanin. We conclude that pigment cell regression in cavefish is mediated by an evolutionary change late in melanogenesis that may involve an impediment in the ability to convert l-tyrosine to l-dopa and melanin.

publication date

  • July 2004