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Int J Biochem Cell Biol. 1997 Nov;29(11):1235-9.


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Department of Molecular Pathology, University College London Medical School, U.K.


Melanin is an irregular light-absorbing polymer containing indoles and other intermediate products derived from the oxidation of tyrosine. Melanin is widely dispersed in the animal and plant kingdoms. It is the major pigment present in the surface structures of vertebrates. The critical step in melanin biogenesis is the oxidation of tyrosine by the enzyme tyrosinase. In vertebrates this enzyme is active only in specialized organelles in retinal pigment epithelium and melanocytes. In mammals melanin is formed as intracellular granules. Melanin granules are transferred from melanocytes to epithelial cells and form the predominant pigment of hair and epidermis. Melanin has many biological functions. Reactive quinone intermediates in the melanin biosynthetic pathway exhibit antibiotic properties and the polymer is an important strengthening element of plant cell walls and insect cuticle. Light absorption by melanin has several biological functions, including photoreceptor shielding, thermoregulation, photoprotection, camouflage and display. Melanin is a powerful cation chelator and may act as a free radical sink. Melanin is used commercially as a component of photoprotective creams, although mainly for its free radical scavenging rather than its light absorption properties. The pigment is also a potential target for anti-melanoma therapy.

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