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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2003 May;121(1):67-80.

Evolution of a pigmentation gene, the melanocortin-1 receptor, in primates.

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Institute of Biological Anthropology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6QS, United Kingdom.


The melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) forms a critical switch in the production of orange/red pheomelanin and black/brown eumelanin pigments during hair development in mammals. The molecular evolution of the melanocortin-1 receptor gene was investigated in a broad range of primate species, including several groups with large differences in distribution of orange/red and black hairs. Primate MC1R has been subject to purifying selection throughout most of its evolution, with small changes in selective constraint being detected early in primate evolution. In contrast to the situation in humans and domestic mammals, many intraspecific and intrageneric differences in primate coat color cannot be attributed to changes in the MC1R coding sequence. Nevertheless, important changes in the biochemical function of MC1R are suggested by mutations in sites of known functional importance, particularly in New World monkeys and lemurs. The evolution of the MC1R in lion tamarins is anomalous, with a combination of a high nonsynonymous to synonymous substitution rate (dN/dS) ratio, deletions, and substitutions.

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