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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2010 Aug;85(3):607-23. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-185X.2009.00118.x. Epub 2009 Dec 21.

The changing biological roles of melatonin during evolution: from an antioxidant to signals of darkness, sexual selection and fitness.

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Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX, USA.


Melatonin is a molecule present in a multitude of taxa and may be ubiquitous in organisms. It has been found in bacteria, unicellular eukaryotes, macroalgae, fungi, plants and animals. A primary biological function of melatonin in primitive unicellular organisms is in antioxidant defence to protect against toxic free radical damage. During evolution, melatonin has been adopted by multicellular organisms to perform many other biological functions. These functions likely include the chemical expression of darkness in vertebrates, environmental tolerance in fungi and plants, sexual signaling in birds and fish, seasonal reproductive regulation in photoperiodic mammals, and immunomodulation and anti-inflammatory activity in all vertebrates tested. Moreover, its waning production during aging may indicate senescence in terms of a bio-clock in many organisms. Conversely, high melatonin levels can serve as a signal of vitality and health. The multiple biological functions of melatonin can partially be attributed to its unconventional metabolism which is comprised of multi-enzymatic, pseudo-enzymatic and non-enzymatic pathways. As a result, several bioactive metabolites of melatonin are formed during its metabolism and some of the presumed biological functions of melatonin reported to date may, in fact, be mediated by these metabolites. The changing biological roles of melatonin seem to have evolved from its primary function as an antioxidant.

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