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What is Melanin? - Definition, Production & Function

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  • 0:00 Overview of Melanin
  • 0:25 Production and Function
  • 2:35 Issues with Expression
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Williams
Melanin is a pigment produced in the skin of almost all animals on Earth. Its role in animal survival is critical, and varies depending on the organism. This article addresses melanin function and expression in humans and other organisms, and its role in survival.

Overview of Melanin

Skin complexion is a characteristic that is affected by many factors. Various genes, nutrition, and environmental factors can play a role in the color of skin. One of the most notable components of skin that contributes to complexion is a pigment known as melanin. Let's discuss melanin and its functions in humans and other animals.

Production and Function

Melanin is a pigment that is produced by cells known as melanocytes in the skin of most animals, including humans. This pigment comes in different shades, depending on the genetic makeup of the individual. Melanin comes in two basic forms and can range from yellowish-red to dark brown. Eumelanin is the most common form of melanin and is brownish in color. The other basic form is called pheomelanin, which produces reddish-brown color that is often associated with freckles and red hair. The production of melanin in the individual is determined by several factors.

Genetically speaking, every individual on Earth has approximately the same number of melanocytes. The difference, then, in the production of melanin is affected by:

  1. Exposure to UV radiation: Melanin is produced as a response to UV radiation in order to prevent damage to the DNA in the integument. Individuals, who are exposed to UV light, such as the sun, will produce more melanin for protection.
  2. Genetic makeup: Different ethnicities and cultures are genetically pre-disposed to producing particular shades and amounts of melanin due to inheritance. This is, essentially, one of the primary indicators used in determining race in the human population. It is important to note that this is, and has historically been, a controversial form of human identification.
  3. Size of melanocytes: Melanocyte size varies in different individuals and may lead to a difference in the amount of melanin produced per cell.
  4. Disease conditions: Several diseases may affect melanin production, including albinism, a genetic inability to produce melanin, and vitiligo, a progressive loss of melanocytes.

These factors all play a role in the production and expression of melanin in the skin. While some factors are more prominent than others, ultimately, they are all important in the final complexion that is exhibited.

Issues with Expression of Melanin

In humans, melanin production is important for the prevention of skin cancers, such as melanoma. This means that the skin becomes darker in most individuals when exposure to sunlight increases. Additionally, overgrowth of melanocytes can lead to the development of moles in the skin. A mole, or nevus, is usually benign (non-threatening) but may become cancerous with increased sunlight exposure.

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