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Melanocytes are specialized cells residing in the hair follicles, the eye, and the basal layer of the human epidermis whose primary function is the production of the pigment melanin, giving rise to skin, hair, and eye color. Melanogenesis, a process unique to melanocytes that involves the processing of tyrosine by a number of melanocyte-specific enzymes, including tyrosinase and tyrosinase-related protein 1 (TRP-1), occurs only after differentiation from the melanocyte precursor, the melanoblast. In humans, melanogenesis is inducible by UV irradiation, with melanin being transferred from the melanocyte in the epidermis to the surrounding keratinocytes as protection from UV-induced damage. Excessive exposure to UV, however, is the primary cause of malignant melanoma, an increasingly common and highly aggressive disease. As an initial approach to understanding the regulation of melanocyte differentiation and melanocyte-specific transcription, we have isolated the gene encoding TRP-1 and examined the cis- and trans-acting factors required for cell-type-specific expression. We find that the TRP-1 promoter comprises both positive and negative regulatory elements which confer efficient expression in a TRP-1-expressing, pigmented melanoma cell line but not in NIH 3T3 or JEG3 cells and that a minimal promoter extending between -44 and +107 is sufficient for cell-type-specific expression. Assays for DNA-protein interactions coupled with extensive mutagenesis identified three factors, whose binding correlated with the function of two positive and one negative regulatory element. One of these factors, termed M-box-binding factor 1, binds to an 11-bp motif, the M box, which acts as a positive regulatory element both in TRP-1-expressing and -nonexpressing cell lines, despite being entirely conserved between the melanocyte-specific tyrosinase and TRP-1 promoters. The possible mechanisms underlying melanocyte-specific gene expression are discussed.

Original publication




Journal article


Molecular and Cellular Biology


American Society for Microbiology

Publication Date





3653 - 3662