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Pigment Cell Res. 2003 Oct;16(5):540-7.

Rate limiting factors in melanocortin 1 receptor signalling through the cAMP pathway.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, School of Medicine, University of Murcia, Murcia, Spain.


The melanotropic actions of alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH) and other melanocortins are mediated by activation of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R). This G protein-coupled receptor is positively coupled to Gs and triggers the cyclic adenosine mono-phosphate (cAMP) pathway. Mutations of the MC1R gene are associated with skin type and pigmentation phenotypes, and with increased risk of skin cancers. Genetic studies have demonstrated an heterozygote carrier effect for these associations, suggesting the importance of variant allele dosage. This could be accounted for, at least partially, if the number of MC1R molecules, rather than the Gs protein or the effector enzyme, adenylyl cyclase, is limiting for the activation of the signalling pathway. However, the nature of the limiting factor(s) in MC1R signalling has not been investigated. We addressed this question by comparing the cAMP output of clones of human melanoma cell lines enriched in MC1R by stable transfection. We also analysed heterologous cell systems widely used for functional studies of MC1R. We show that cAMP production in clones of Chinese hamster ovary cells stably expressing the MC1R is a linear function of receptor number up to high, supraphysiological levels of approximately 50,000 alpha-MSH binding sites per cell. Enrichment of human melanoma cell lines with MC1R also results in increased cAMP levels, with a small leftward shift of the agonist dose-response curves. Therefore, at physiological expression levels second-messenger generation is dependent on receptor density. Within melanoma cells and also likely in normal melanocytes, MC1R appears the limiting factor controlling the output of the cAMP signalling pathway.

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