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PLoS One. 2013 Nov 25;8(11):e80823. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080823. eCollection 2013.

A potential benefit of albinism in Astyanax cavefish: downregulation of the oca2 gene increases tyrosine and catecholamine levels as an alternative to melanin synthesis.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Biology, Ruđer Bošković Institute, Zagreb, Croatia ; Department of Biology, University of Maryland, Maryland, United States of America.


Albinism, the loss of melanin pigmentation, has evolved in a diverse variety of cave animals but the responsible evolutionary mechanisms are unknown. In Astyanax mexicanus, which has a pigmented surface dwelling form (surface fish) and several albino cave-dwelling forms (cavefish), albinism is caused by loss of function mutations in the oca2 gene, which operates during the first step of the melanin synthesis pathway. In addition to albinism, cavefish have evolved differences in behavior, including feeding and sleep, which are under the control of the catecholamine system. The catecholamine and melanin synthesis pathways diverge after beginning with the same substrate, L-tyrosine. Here we describe a novel relationship between the catecholamine and melanin synthesis pathways in Astyanax. Our results show significant increases in L-tyrosine, dopamine, and norepinephrine in pre-feeding larvae and adult brains of Pachón cavefish relative to surface fish. In addition, norepinephrine is elevated in cavefish adult kidneys, which contain the teleost homologs of catecholamine synthesizing adrenal cells. We further show that the oca2 gene is expressed during surface fish development but is downregulated in cavefish embryos. A key finding is that knockdown of oca2 expression in surface fish embryos delays the development of pigmented melanophores and simultaneously increases L-tyrosine and dopamine. We conclude that a potential evolutionary benefit of albinism in Astyanax cavefish may be to provide surplus L-tyrosine as a precursor for the elevated catecholamine synthesis pathway, which could be important for adaptation to the challenging cave environment.

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