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The Genetic and Molecular Basis of Melanism in the Grey Squirrel Helen McRobie.pdf (19.21 MB)

The genetic and molecular basis of melanism in the grey squirrel (sciurus carolinensis)

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posted on 2023-08-30, 14:08 authored by Helen R. McRobie
The grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has wildtype and melanic (dark) colour morphs. Melanism is associated with variations in the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) gene in a number of species. The MC1R protein is a G-protein coupled receptor, predominantly expressed in melanocytes, where it is a key regulator of pigment production. To investigate the genetic and molecular basis of melanism, the MC1R genes of the wildtype and melanic grey squirrel were sequenced. The wildtype (MC1R-wt) and melanic (MC1RΔ24) variants of the MC1R were then functionally characterised in a cell-based assay. The MC1R gene of the grey squirrel was found to have a 24 base pair (bp) deletion associated with melanism. The MC1R is typically activated by its agonist, the alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (α-MSH), which stimulates dark pigment production by raising intracellular cAMP levels. Conversely, the MC1R is inactivated by its inverse agonist, the agouti signalling protein (ASIP), which stops dark pigment production by lowering intracellular cAMP levels. To investigate the effects that the 24 bp deletion have on receptor function, MC1R-wt and MC1RΔ24 genes were transfected into HEK293 cells. Cells expressing either MC1R-wt or MC1RΔ24 were stimulated with α-MSH or ASIP and intracellular cAMP levels were measured. Unstimulated MC1RΔ24 cells showed higher basal activity than the MC1R-wt cells. Both MC1R-wt and MC1RΔ24 cells responded to α-MSH with a concentration-dependent increase in intracellular cAMP. However, while the MC1Rwt cells responded to ASIP with a concentration-dependent decrease in intracellular cAMP, MC1RΔ24 cells responded with an increase in cAMP. Melanism in the grey squirrel is associated with a 24 bp deletion in the MC1R. Cells expressing MC1RΔ24 have higher basal levels of cAMP than MC1R-wt cells. ASIP acts as an inverse agonist to the MC1R-wt but as an agonist to the MC1RΔ24. As MC1RΔ24 cells have higher levels of cAMP, and higher levels of cAMP lead to dark pigment production, the 24 bp deletion is the likely molecular cause of melanism in the grey squirrel.



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