Chromatophores are pigment
Biological pigment
Biological pigments, also known simply as pigments or biochromes are substances produced by living organisms that have a color resulting from selective color absorption. Biological pigments include plant pigments and flower pigments...

-containing and light-reflecting cells
Cell (biology)
The cell is the basic structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. It is the smallest unit of life that is classified as a living thing, and is often called the building block of life. The Alberts text discusses how the "cellular building blocks" move to shape developing embryos....

 found in amphibian
Amphibians , are a class of vertebrate animals including animals such as toads, frogs, caecilians, and salamanders. They are characterized as non-amniote ectothermic tetrapods...

s, fish
Fish are a paraphyletic group of organisms that consist of all gill-bearing aquatic vertebrate animals that lack limbs with digits. Included in this definition are the living hagfish, lampreys, and cartilaginous and bony fish, as well as various extinct related groups...

, reptile
Reptiles are members of a class of air-breathing, ectothermic vertebrates which are characterized by laying shelled eggs , and having skin covered in scales and/or scutes. They are tetrapods, either having four limbs or being descended from four-limbed ancestors...

s, crustacean
Crustaceans form a very large group of arthropods, usually treated as a subphylum, which includes such familiar animals as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill and barnacles. The 50,000 described species range in size from Stygotantulus stocki at , to the Japanese spider crab with a leg span...

s, and cephalopod
A cephalopod is any member of the molluscan class Cephalopoda . These exclusively marine animals are characterized by bilateral body symmetry, a prominent head, and a set of arms or tentacles modified from the primitive molluscan foot...

s. They are largely responsible for generating skin and eye colour
Eye color
Eye color is a polygenic phenotypic character and is determined by two distinct factors: the pigmentation of the eye's iris and the frequency-dependence of the scattering of light by the turbid medium in the stroma of the iris....

 in cold-blooded
A poikilotherm is an organism whose internal temperature varies considerably. It is the opposite of a homeotherm, an organism which maintains thermal homeostasis. Usually the variation is a consequence of variation in the ambient environmental temperature...

 animals and are generated in the neural crest
Neural crest
Neural crest cells are a transient, multipotent, migratory cell population unique to vertebrates that gives rise to a diverse cell lineage including melanocytes, craniofacial cartilage and bone, smooth muscle, peripheral and enteric neurons and glia....

 during embryonic development. Mature chromatophores are grouped into subclasses based on their colour (more properly "hue
Hue is one of the main properties of a color, defined technically , as "the degree to which a stimulus can be describedas similar to or different from stimuli that are described as red, green, blue, and yellow,"...

") under white light: xanthophores (yellow), erythrophores (red), iridophores (reflective / iridescent
Iridescence is generally known as the property of certain surfaces which appear to change color as the angle of view or the angle of illumination changes...

), leucophores (white), melanophores (black/brown) and cyanophores (blue). The term can also refer to coloured, membrane associated vesicles found in some forms of photosynthetic bacteria
Phototrophs are the organisms that carry out photosynthesis to acquire energy. They use the energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into organic material to be utilized in cellular functions such as biosynthesis and respiration.Most phototrophs are autotrophs, also known as...


Some species can rapidly change colour through mechanisms that translocate pigment and reorient reflective plates within chromatophores. This process, often used as a type of camouflage
Camouflage is a method of concealment that allows an otherwise visible animal, military vehicle, or other object to remain unnoticed, by blending with its environment. Examples include a leopard's spotted coat, the battledress of a modern soldier and a leaf-mimic butterfly...

, is called physiological colour change. Cephalopods such as octopus
The octopus is a cephalopod mollusc of the order Octopoda. Octopuses have two eyes and four pairs of arms, and like other cephalopods they are bilaterally symmetric. An octopus has a hard beak, with its mouth at the center point of the arms...

 have complex chromatophore organs controlled by muscles to achieve this, while vertebrates such as chameleon
Chameleons are a distinctive and highly specialized clade of lizards. They are distinguished by their parrot-like zygodactylous feet, their separately mobile and stereoscopic eyes, their very long, highly modified, and rapidly extrudable tongues, their swaying gait, the possession by many of a...

s generate a similar effect by cell signaling
Cell signaling
Cell signaling is part of a complex system of communication that governs basic cellular activities and coordinates cell actions. The ability of cells to perceive and correctly respond to their microenvironment is the basis of development, tissue repair, and immunity as well as normal tissue...

. Such signals can be hormone
A hormone is a chemical released by a cell or a gland in one part of the body that sends out messages that affect cells in other parts of the organism. Only a small amount of hormone is required to alter cell metabolism. In essence, it is a chemical messenger that transports a signal from one...

s or neurotransmitter
Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to...

s and may be initiated by changes in mood, temperature, stress or visible changes in local environment.

Unlike cold-blooded animals, mammal
Mammals are members of a class of air-breathing vertebrate animals characterised by the possession of endothermy, hair, three middle ear bones, and mammary glands functional in mothers with young...

s and bird
Birds are feathered, winged, bipedal, endothermic , egg-laying, vertebrate animals. Around 10,000 living species and 188 families makes them the most speciose class of tetrapod vertebrates. They inhabit ecosystems across the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Extant birds range in size from...

s have only one class of chromatophore-like cell type: the melanocyte
-External links: - "Eye: fovea, RPE" - "Integument: pigmented skin"...

. The cold-blooded equivalent, melanophores, are studied by scientists to understand human disease and used as a tool in drug discovery
Drug discovery
In the fields of medicine, biotechnology and pharmacology, drug discovery is the process by which drugs are discovered or designed.In the past most drugs have been discovered either by identifying the active ingredient from traditional remedies or by serendipitous discovery...



An invertebrate is an animal without a backbone. The group includes 97% of all animal species – all animals except those in the chordate subphylum Vertebrata .Invertebrates form a paraphyletic group...

 pigment-bearing cells were first described as in an Italian science journal in 1819. The term chromatophore was adopted later as the name for pigment bearing cells derived from the neural crest of cold-blooded vertebrate
Vertebrates are animals that are members of the subphylum Vertebrata . Vertebrates are the largest group of chordates, with currently about 58,000 species described. Vertebrates include the jawless fishes, bony fishes, sharks and rays, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds...

s and cephalopods. The word itself comes from the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 words meaning "colour," and meaning "bearing". In contrast, the word chromatocyte (cyte or being Greek for "cell") was adopted for the cells responsible for colour found in birds and mammals. Only one such cell type, the melanocyte, has been identified in these animals.

It wasn't until the 1960s that the structure and colouration of chromatophores were understood well enough to allow the development of a system of sub-classification based on their appearance. This classification system persists to this day even though more recent studies have revealed that certain biochemical
Biochemistry, sometimes called biological chemistry, is the study of chemical processes in living organisms, including, but not limited to, living matter. Biochemistry governs all living organisms and living processes...

 aspects of the pigments may be more useful to a scientific understanding of how the cells function.

Colour-producing molecules fall into two distinct classes: biochromes and schemochromes. The biochromes include true pigments, such as carotenoid
Carotenoids are tetraterpenoid organic pigments that are naturally occurring in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of plants and some other photosynthetic organisms like algae, some bacteria, and some types of fungus. Carotenoids can be synthesized fats and other basic organic metabolic building...

s and pteridine
Pteridine is a chemical compound composed of fused pyrimidine and pyrazine rings. A pteridine is also a group of heterocyclic compounds containing a wide variety of substitutions on this structure. Pterins and flavins are classes of substituted pteridines that have important biological...

s. These pigments selectively absorb parts of the visible light spectrum
Visible spectrum
The visible spectrum is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation in this range of wavelengths is called visible light or simply light. A typical human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 390 to 750 nm. In terms of...

 that makes up white light while permitting other wavelength
In physics, the wavelength of a sinusoidal wave is the spatial period of the wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats.It is usually determined by considering the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase, such as crests, troughs, or zero crossings, and is a...

s to reach the eye of the observer. Schemochromes, also known as "structural colours", produce colouration by reflecting some wavelengths (colours) of light and transmitting others, by causing light waves to interfere within the structure or by scattering light which falls upon them.

While all chromatophores contain pigments or reflecting structures (except when there has been a genetic mutation
In molecular biology and genetics, mutations are changes in a genomic sequence: the DNA sequence of a cell's genome or the DNA or RNA sequence of a virus. They can be defined as sudden and spontaneous changes in the cell. Mutations are caused by radiation, viruses, transposons and mutagenic...

 resulting in a disorder like albinism
Albinism is a congenital disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of an enzyme involved in the production of melanin...

), not all pigment containing cells are chromatophores. Haem, for example, is a biochrome responsible for the red appearance of blood. It is primarily found in red blood cell
Red blood cell
Red blood cells are the most common type of blood cell and the vertebrate organism's principal means of delivering oxygen to the body tissues via the blood flow through the circulatory system...

s (erythrocytes), which are generated in bone marrow throughout the life of an organism, rather than being formed during embryological development. Therefore erythrocytes are not classified as chromatophores.

Xanthophores and erythrophores

Chromatophores that contain large amounts of yellow
Yellow is the color evoked by light that stimulates both the L and M cone cells of the retina about equally, with no significant stimulation of the S cone cells. Light with a wavelength of 570–590 nm is yellow, as is light with a suitable mixture of red and green...

 pteridine pigments are named xanthophores; those with a preponderance of red
Red is any of a number of similar colors evoked by light consisting predominantly of the longest wavelengths of light discernible by the human eye, in the wavelength range of roughly 630–740 nm. Longer wavelengths than this are called infrared , and cannot be seen by the naked eye...

Orange (colour)
The colour orange occurs between red and yellow in the visible spectrum at a wavelength of about 585–620 nm, and has a hue of 30° in HSV colour space. It is numerically halfway between red and yellow in a gamma-compressed RGB colour space, the expression of which is the RGB colour wheel. The...

 carotenoids are termed erythrophores. Pteridine and carotenoid containing vesicles
Vesicle (biology)
A vesicle is a bubble of liquid within another liquid, a supramolecular assembly made up of many different molecules. More technically, a vesicle is a small membrane-enclosed sack that can store or transport substances. Vesicles can form naturally because of the properties of lipid membranes , or...

 are sometimes found within the same cell, in which case the overall colour depends on the ratio of red and yellow pigments. Therefore, the distinction between these chromatophore types is not always clear.

The capacity to generate pteridines from guanosine triphosphate
Guanosine triphosphate
Guanosine-5'-triphosphate is a purine nucleoside triphosphate. It can act as a substrate for the synthesis of RNA during the transcription process...

 is a feature common to most chromatophores, but xanthophores appear to have supplemental biochemical pathways that result in an excess accumulation of yellow pigment. In contrast, carotenoids are metabolised
Metabolism is the set of chemical reactions that happen in the cells of living organisms to sustain life. These processes allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments. Metabolism is usually divided into two categories...

 from the diet and transported to erythrophores. This was first demonstrated by rearing normally green frogs on a diet of carotene
The term carotene is used for several related unsaturated hydrocarbon substances having the formula C40Hx, which are synthesized by plants but cannot be made by animals. Carotene is an orange photosynthetic pigment important for photosynthesis. Carotenes are all coloured to the human eye...

-restricted cricket
Cricket (insect)
Crickets, family Gryllidae , are insects somewhat related to grasshoppers, and more closely related to katydids or bush crickets . They have somewhat flattened bodies and long antennae. There are about 900 species of crickets...

s. The absence of carotene in the frogs' diet meant the red/orange carotenoid colour 'filter' was not present in their erythrophores. This resulted in the frogs appearing blue in colour, instead of green.

Iridophores and leucophores

Iridophores, sometimes also called guanophores, are pigment cells that reflect light using plates of crystalline chemochromes made from guanine
Guanine is one of the four main nucleobases found in the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, the others being adenine, cytosine, and thymine . In DNA, guanine is paired with cytosine. With the formula C5H5N5O, guanine is a derivative of purine, consisting of a fused pyrimidine-imidazole ring system with...

. When illuminated they generate iridescent colours because of the diffraction of light within the stacked plates. Orientation of the schemochrome determines the nature of the colour observed. By using biochromes as coloured filters, iridophores create an optical effect known as Tyndall
Tyndall effect
The Tyndall effect, also known as Tyndall scattering, is light scattering by particles in a colloid or particles in a fine suspension. It is named after the 19th century physicist John Tyndall. It is similar to Rayleigh scattering, in that the intensity of the scattered light depends on the fourth...

 or Rayleigh scattering
Rayleigh scattering
Rayleigh scattering, named after the British physicist Lord Rayleigh, is the elastic scattering of light or other electromagnetic radiation by particles much smaller than the wavelength of the light. The particles may be individual atoms or molecules. It can occur when light travels through...

, producing bright blue
Blue is a colour, the perception of which is evoked by light having a spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nm. It is considered one of the additive primary colours. On the HSV Colour Wheel, the complement of blue is yellow; that is, a colour corresponding to an equal...

 or green
Green is a color, the perception of which is evoked by light having a spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 520–570 nanometres. In the subtractive color system, it is not a primary color, but is created out of a mixture of yellow and blue, or yellow and cyan; it is considered...


A related type of chromatophore, the leucophore, is found in some fish, particularly in the tapetum lucidum
Tapetum lucidum
The tapetum lucidum is a layer of tissue in the eye of many vertebrate animals....

. Like iridophores, they utilize crystalline purine
A purine is a heterocyclic aromatic organic compound, consisting of a pyrimidine ring fused to an imidazole ring. Purines, including substituted purines and their tautomers, are the most widely distributed kind of nitrogen-containing heterocycle in nature....

s (often guanine) to reflect light. Unlike iridophores, however, leucophores have more organized crystals which reduce diffraction. Given a source of white light, they produce a white
White is a color, the perception of which is evoked by light that stimulates all three types of color sensitive cone cells in the human eye in nearly equal amounts and with high brightness compared to the surroundings. A white visual stimulation will be void of hue and grayness.White light can be...

 shine. As with xanthophores and erythrophores, in fish the distinction between iridophores and leucophores is not always obvious, but generally iridophores are considered to generate iridescent or metallic colours while leucophores produce reflective white hues.


Melanophores contain eumelanin, a type of melanin
Melanin is a pigment that is ubiquitous in nature, being found in most organisms . In animals melanin pigments are derivatives of the amino acid tyrosine. The most common form of biological melanin is eumelanin, a brown-black polymer of dihydroxyindole carboxylic acids, and their reduced forms...

, that appears black
Black is the color of objects that do not emit or reflect light in any part of the visible spectrum; they absorb all such frequencies of light...

 or dark brown
Brown is a color term, denoting a range of composite colors produced by a mixture of orange, red, rose, or yellow with black or gray. The term is from Old English brún, in origin for any dusky or dark shade of color....

 because of its light absorbing qualities. It is packaged in vesicles called melanosomes and distributed throughout the cell. Eumelanin is generated from tyrosine
Tyrosine or 4-hydroxyphenylalanine, is one of the 22 amino acids that are used by cells to synthesize proteins. Its codons are UAC and UAU. It is a non-essential amino acid with a polar side group...

 in a series of catalysed chemical reactions. It is a complex chemical containing units of dihydroxyindole
Indole is an aromatic heterocyclic organic compound. It has a bicyclic structure, consisting of a six-membered benzene ring fused to a five-membered nitrogen-containing pyrrole ring. Indole is a popular component of fragrances and the precursor to many pharmaceuticals. Compounds that contain an...

 and dihydroxyindole-2-carboxylic acid
Carboxylic acid
Carboxylic acids are organic acids characterized by the presence of at least one carboxyl group. The general formula of a carboxylic acid is R-COOH, where R is some monovalent functional group...

 with some pyrrole
Pyrrole is a heterocyclic aromatic organic compound, a five-membered ring with the formula C4H4NH. It is a colourless volatile liquid that darkens readily upon exposure to air. Substituted derivatives are also called pyrroles, e.g., N-methylpyrrole, C4H4NCH3...

 rings. The key enzyme in melanin synthesis is tyrosinase
Tyrosinase also known as monophenol monooxygenase is an enzyme that catalyses the oxidation of phenols and is widespread in plants and animals...

. When this protein is defective, no melanin can be generated resulting in certain types of albinism. In some amphibian species there are other pigments packaged alongside eumelanin. For example, a novel deep (wine) red coloured pigment was identified in the melanophores of phyllomedusine frogs
Phyllomedusa is a genus of tree frog from Central and South America. It ranges from Costa Rica southward to Argentina. It has around thirty species.-Secretion:...

. This was subsequently identified as pterorhodin, a pteridine dimer that accumulates around eumelanin core, and it is also present in a variety of tree frog
Tree frog
Hylidae is a wide-ranging family of frogs commonly referred to as "tree frogs and their allies". However, the hylids include a diversity of frog species, many of which do not live in trees, but are terrestrial or semi-aquatic.-Characteristics:...

 species from Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

 and Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea , officially the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, is a country in Oceania, occupying the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and numerous offshore islands...

. While it is likely that other lesser studied species have complex melanophore pigments, it is nevertheless true that the majority of melanophores studied to date do contain eumelanin exclusively.

Humans have only one class of pigment cell, the mammalian equivalent of melanophores, to generate skin, hair and eye colour. For this reason, and because the large number and contrasting colour of the cells usually make them very easy to visualise, melanophores are by far the most widely studied chromatophore. However, there are differences between the biology of melanophores and melanocyte
-External links: - "Eye: fovea, RPE" - "Integument: pigmented skin"...

s. In addition to eumelanin, melanocytes can generate a yellow/red pigment called phaeomelanin.


In 1995 it was demonstrated that the vibrant blue colours in some types of mandarinfish
The Mandarinfish or Mandarin dragonet , is a small, brightly-colored member of the dragonet family, which is popular in the saltwater aquarium trade...

 are not generated by schemochromes. Instead, a cyan
Cyan from , transliterated: kýanos, meaning "dark blue substance") may be used as the name of any of a number of colors in the blue/green range of the spectrum. In reference to the visible spectrum cyan is used to refer to the color obtained by mixing equal amounts of green and blue light or the...

 biochrome of unknown chemical nature is responsible. This pigment, found within vesicles in at least two species of callionymid fish, is highly unusual in the animal
Animals are a major group of multicellular, eukaryotic organisms of the kingdom Animalia or Metazoa. Their body plan eventually becomes fixed as they develop, although some undergo a process of metamorphosis later on in their life. Most animals are motile, meaning they can move spontaneously and...

 kingdom, as all other blue colourings thus far investigated are schemochromatic. Therefore a novel chromatophore type, the cyanophore, was proposed. Although they appear unusual in their taxonomic restriction, there may be cyanophores (as well as further unusual chromatophore types) in other fish and amphibians. For example, bright coloured chromatophores with undefined pigments have been observed in both poison dart frog
Poison dart frog
Poison dart frog is the common name of a group of frogs in the family Dendrobatidae which are native to Central and South America. These species are diurnal and often have brightly-colored bodies...

s and glass frog
Glass frog
Glass frog is the common name for the frogs of the amphibian family Centrolenidae . While the general background coloration of most glass frogs is primarily lime green, the abdominal skin of some members of this family is transparent...

s, and atypical dichromatic chromatophores, named erythro-iridophores have been described in Pseudochromis diadema.

Pigment translocation

Many species have the ability to translocate the pigment inside chromatophores, resulting in an apparent change in colour. This process, known as physiological colour change, is most widely studied in melanophores, since melanin is the darkest and most visible pigment. In most species with a relatively thin dermis
The dermis is a layer of skin between the epidermis and subcutaneous tissues, and is composed of two layers, the papillary and reticular dermis...

, the dermal melanophores tend to be flat and cover a large surface area. However, in animals with thick dermal layers, such as adult reptiles, dermal melanophores often form three-dimensional units with other chromatophores. These dermal chromatophore units (DCU) consist of an uppermost xanthophore or erythrophore layer, then an iridophore layer, and finally a basket-like melanophore layer with processes covering the iridophores.

Both types of dermal melanophores are important in physiological colour change. Flat dermal melanophores will often overlay other chromatophores so when the pigment is dispersed throughout the cell the skin appears dark. When the pigment is aggregated towards the centre of the cell, the pigments in other chromatophores are exposed to light and the skin takes on their hue. Similarly, after melanin aggregation in DCUs, the skin appears green through xanthophore (yellow) filtering of scattered light from the iridophore layer. On the dispersion of melanin, the light is no longer scattered and the skin appears dark. As the other biochromatic chomatophores are also capable of pigment translocation, animals with multiple chromatophore types can generate a spectacular array of skin colours by making good use of the divisional effect.,
The control and mechanics of rapid pigment translocation has been well studied in a number of different species, particularly amphibians and teleost fish., It has been demonstrated that the process can be under hormonal
A hormone is a chemical released by a cell or a gland in one part of the body that sends out messages that affect cells in other parts of the organism. Only a small amount of hormone is required to alter cell metabolism. In essence, it is a chemical messenger that transports a signal from one...

, neuronal
Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse. Neurotransmitters are packaged into synaptic vesicles clustered beneath the membrane on the presynaptic side of a synapse, and are released into the synaptic cleft, where they bind to...

 control or both. Neurochemicals that are known to translocate pigment include noradrenaline, through its receptor on the surface on melanophores. The primary hormones involved in regulating translocation appear to be the melanocortin
The melanocortins are a group of peptide hormones which include adrenocorticotropic hormone and the different forms of melanocyte-stimulating hormone . They can be synthetic . In humans they can be endogenously produced from proopiomelanocortin in the pituitary gland...

s, melatonin
Melatonin , also known chemically as N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine, is a naturally occurring compound found in animals, plants, and microbes...

 and melanin concentrating hormone
Melanin concentrating hormone
Melanin-concentrating hormone is a cyclic 19-amino acid orexinogenic hypothalamic peptide originally isolated from the pituitary gland of teleost fish where it controls skin pigmentation....

 (MCH), that are produced mainly in the pituitary, pineal gland and hypothalamus respectively. These hormones may also be generated in a paracrine fashion by cells in the skin. At the surface of the melanophore the hormones have been shown to activate specific G-protein coupled receptors that, in turn, transduce the signal into the cell. Melanocortins result in the dispersion of pigment, while melatonin and MCH results in aggregation.

Numerous melanocortin, MCH and melatonin receptors have been identified in fish and frogs, including a homologue
Homology (biology)
Homology forms the basis of organization for comparative biology. In 1843, Richard Owen defined homology as "the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function". Organs as different as a bat's wing, a seal's flipper, a cat's paw and a human hand have a common underlying...

 of MC1R
Melanocortin 1 receptor
The melanocortin 1 receptor , also known as melanocyte-stimulating hormone receptor , melanin-activating peptide receptor, or melanotropin receptor, is a G protein-coupled receptor which binds to a class of pituitary peptide hormones known as the melanocortins, of which include adrenocorticotropic...

, a melanocortin receptor known to regulate skin and hair colour in humans. It has been demonstrated that MC1R is required in zebrafish for dispersion of melanin. Inside the cell, cyclic adenosine monophosphate
Cyclic adenosine monophosphate
Cyclic adenosine monophosphate is a second messenger important in many biological processes...

 (cAMP) has been shown to be an important second messenger of pigment translocation. Through a mechanism not yet fully understood, cAMP influences other proteins such as protein kinase A to drive molecular motors
Moving proteins
Motor proteins are a class of molecular motors that are able to move along the surface of a suitable substrate. They are powered by the hydrolysis of ATP and convert chemical energy into mechanical work.- Cellular functions :...

 carrying pigment containing vesicles along both microtubule
Microtubules are a component of the cytoskeleton. These rope-like polymers of tubulin can grow as long as 25 micrometers and are highly dynamic. The outer diameter of microtubule is about 25 nm. Microtubules are important for maintaining cell structure, providing platforms for intracellular...

s and microfilament
Microfilaments are the thinnest filaments of the cytoskeleton, a structure found in the cytoplasm of all eukaryotic cells. These linear polymers of actin subunits are flexible and relatively strong, resisting buckling by multi-piconewton compressive forces and filament fracture by nanonewton...


Background adaptation

Most fish, reptiles and amphibians undergo a limited physiological colour change in response to a change in environment. This type of camouflage, known as background adaptation, most commonly appears as a slight darkening or lightening of skin tone to approximately mimic
In evolutionary biology, mimicry is the similarity of one species to another which protects one or both. This similarity can be in appearance, behaviour, sound, scent and even location, with the mimics found in similar places to their models....

 the hue of the immediate environment. It has been demonstrated that the background adaptation process is vision dependent (it appears the animal needs to be able to see the environment to adapt to it), and that melanin translocation in melanophores is the major factor in colour change. Some animals, such as chameleons and anole
Polychrotidae is a family of lizards commonly known as anoles . NCBI places the anole in subfamily Polychrotinae of the family Iguanidae. Four genera are common: Anolis, Norops, Phenacosaurus, and Polychrus....

s, have a highly developed background adaptation response capable of generating a number of different colours very rapidly. They have adapted the capability to change colour in response to temperature, mood, stress levels and social cues, rather than to simply mimic their environment.


During vertebrate embryonic development, chromatophores are one of a number of cell types generated in the neural crest
Neural crest
Neural crest cells are a transient, multipotent, migratory cell population unique to vertebrates that gives rise to a diverse cell lineage including melanocytes, craniofacial cartilage and bone, smooth muscle, peripheral and enteric neurons and glia....

, a paired strip of cells arising at the margins of the neural tube
Neural tube
In the developing vertebrate, the neural tube is the embryo's precursor to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord...

. These cells have the ability to migrate long distances, allowing chromatophores to populate many organs of the body, including the skin, eye, ear and brain. Leaving the neural crest in waves, chromatophores take either a dorsolateral route through the dermis, entering the ectoderm
The "ectoderm" is one of the three primary germ cell layers in the very early embryo. The other two layers are the mesoderm and endoderm , with the ectoderm as the most exterior layer...

 through small holes in the basal lamina
Basal lamina
The basal lamina is a layer of extracellular matrix secreted by the epithelial cells, on which the epithelium sits. It is often confused with the basement membrane, and sometimes used inconsistently in the literature, see below....

, or a ventromedial route between the somites and the neural tube. The exception to this is the melanophores of the retinal pigmented epithelium of the eye. These are not derived from the neural crest, instead an outpouching of the neural tube generates the optic cup which, in turn, forms the retina
The vertebrate retina is a light-sensitive tissue lining the inner surface of the eye. The optics of the eye create an image of the visual world on the retina, which serves much the same function as the film in a camera. Light striking the retina initiates a cascade of chemical and electrical...


When and how multipotent chromatophore precursor cells (called chromatoblasts) develop into their daughter subtypes is an area of ongoing research. It is known in zebrafish embryos, for example, that by 3 days after fertilization each of the cell classes found in the adult fish — melanophores, xanthophores and iridophores — are already present. Studies using mutant fish have demonstrated that transcription factor
Transcription factor
In molecular biology and genetics, a transcription factor is a protein that binds to specific DNA sequences, thereby controlling the flow of genetic information from DNA to mRNA...

s such as kit, sox10
SOX genes
SOX genes encode a family of transcription factors that bind to the minor groove in DNA, and belong to a super-family of genes characterized by a homologous sequence called the HMG box. This HMG box is a DNA binding domain that is highly conserved throughout eukaryotic species...

and mitf
Microphthalmia also referred to as microphthalmos, nanophthalmia or nanophthalmos, is a developmental disorder of the eye that literally means small eye...

are important in controlling chromatophore differentiation. If these proteins are defective, chromatophores may be regionally or entirely absent, resulting in a leucistic
Leucism is a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation in animals and humans. Unlike albinism, it is caused by a reduction in all types of skin pigment, not just melanin.- Details :...


Practical applications

In addition to basic research
Basic Research
Basic Research is an herbal supplement and cosmetics manufacturer based in Salt Lake City, Utah that distributes products through a large number of subsidiaries. In addition, their products are sold domestically and internationally through a number of high-end retailers. Dennis Gay is the...

 into better understanding of chromatophores themselves, the cells are used for applied research purposes. For example, zebrafish larvae are used to study how chromatophores organise and communicate to accurately generate the regular horizontal striped pattern as seen in adult fish. This is seen as a useful model
Animal model
An animal model is a living, non-human animal used during the research and investigation of human disease, for the purpose of better understanding the disease without the added risk of causing harm to an actual human being during the process...

 system for understanding patterning in the evolutionary developmental biology
Evolutionary developmental biology
Evolutionary developmental biology is a field of biology that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to determine the ancestral relationship between them, and to discover how developmental processes evolved...

 field. Chromatophore biology has also been used to model human condition or disease, including melanoma
Melanoma is a malignant tumor of melanocytes. Melanocytes are cells that produce the dark pigment, melanin, which is responsible for the color of skin. They predominantly occur in skin, but are also found in other parts of the body, including the bowel and the eye...

 and albinism. Recently the gene responsible for the melanophore-specific golden zebrafish strain, Slc24a5
Sodium/potassium/calcium exchanger 5 also known as solute carrier family 24 member 5 is a protein that in humans is encoded by the SLC24A5 gene that has a major influence on natural skin colour variation. The NCKX5 protein is a member of the potassium-dependent sodium/calcium exchanger family...

, was shown to have a human equivalent that strongly correlates with skin colour.

Chromatophores are also used as a biomarker
Biomarker (medicine)
In medicine, a biomarker is a term often used to refer to a protein measured in blood whose concentration reflects the severity or presence of some disease state...

 of blindness in cold-blooded species, as animals with certain visual defects fail to background adapt to light environments. Human homologues of receptors that mediate pigment translocation in melanophores are thought to be involved in processes such as appetite
The appetite is the desire to eat food, felt as hunger. Appetite exists in all higher life-forms, and serves to regulate adequate energy intake to maintain metabolic needs. It is regulated by a close interplay between the digestive tract, adipose tissue and the brain. Decreased desire to eat is...

 suppression and tanning
Sun tanning
Sun tanning or simply tanning is the process whereby skin color is darkened or tanned. The process is most often a result of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or from artificial sources, such as a tanning bed, but can also be a result of windburn or reflected light...

, making them attractive targets for drugs. Therefore pharmaceutical companies have developed a biological assay for rapidly identifying potential bioactive compounds using melanophores from the African clawed frog
African clawed frog
The African clawed frog is a species of South African aquatic frog of the genus Xenopus. Its name is derived from the three short claws on each hind foot, which it uses to tear apart its food...

. Other scientists have developed techniques for using melanophores as biosensor
A biosensor is an analytical device for the detection of an analyte that combines a biological component with a physicochemical detector component.It consists of 3 parts:* the sensitive biological element A biosensor is an analytical device for the detection of an analyte that combines a biological...

s, and for rapid disease detection (based on the discovery that pertussis toxin
Pertussis toxin
Pertussis toxin is a protein-based AB5-type exotoxin produced by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which causes whooping cough. PT is involved in the colonization of the respiratory tract and the establishment of infection...

 blocks pigment aggregation in fish melanophores). Potential military
A military is an organization authorized by its greater society to use lethal force, usually including use of weapons, in defending its country by combating actual or perceived threats. The military may have additional functions of use to its greater society, such as advancing a political agenda e.g...

 applications of chromatophore mediated colour changes have been proposed, mainly as a type of active camouflage
Active camouflage
Active camouflage or adaptive camouflage, is a group of camouflage technologies which allow an object to blend into its surroundings by use of panels or coatings capable of altering their appearance, color, luminance and reflective properties...


Cephalopod chromatophores

Coleoid cephalopods have complex multicellular organs which they use to change colour rapidly. This is most notable in brightly coloured squid
Squid are cephalopods of the order Teuthida, which comprises around 300 species. Like all other cephalopods, squid have a distinct head, bilateral symmetry, a mantle, and arms. Squid, like cuttlefish, have eight arms arranged in pairs and two, usually longer, tentacles...

, cuttlefish
Cuttlefish are marine animals of the order Sepiida. They belong to the class Cephalopoda . Despite their name, cuttlefish are not fish but molluscs....

 and octopuses. Each chromatophore unit is composed of a single chromatophore cell and numerous muscle, nerve, glial
Glial cell
Glial cells, sometimes called neuroglia or simply glia , are non-neuronal cells that maintain homeostasis, form myelin, and provide support and protection for neurons in the brain, and for neurons in other parts of the nervous system such as in the autonomous nervous system...

 and sheath cells. Inside the chromatophore cell, pigment granules are enclosed in an elastic sac, called the cytoelastic sacculus. To change colour the animal distorts the sacculus form or size by muscular contraction, changing its translucency, reflectivity or opacity
Opacity (optics)
Opacity is the measure of impenetrability to electromagnetic or other kinds of radiation, especially visible light. In radiative transfer, it describes the absorption and scattering of radiation in a medium, such as a plasma, dielectric, shielding material, glass, etc...

. This differs from the mechanism used in fish, amphibians and reptiles, in that the shape of the sacculus is being changed rather than a translocation of pigment vesicles within the cell. However a similar effect is achieved.

Octopuses can operate chromatophores in complex, wavelike chromatic displays, resulting in a variety of rapidly changing colour schemes. The nerves that operate the chromatophores are thought to be positioned in the brain in a pattern similar to that of the chromatophores they each control. This means the pattern of colour change matches the pattern of neuronal activation
Action potential
In physiology, an action potential is a short-lasting event in which the electrical membrane potential of a cell rapidly rises and falls, following a consistent trajectory. Action potentials occur in several types of animal cells, called excitable cells, which include neurons, muscle cells, and...

. This may explain why, as the neurons are activated one after another, the colour change occurs in waves. Like chameleons, cephalopods use physiological colour change for social interaction. They are also among the most skilled at background adaptation, having the ability to match both the colour and the texture
Texture (geology)
Texture in geology refers to the physical appearance or character of a rock, such as grain size, shape, arrangement, and pattern at both the megascopic or microscopic surface feature level. This includes the geometric aspects and relations amongst the component particles or crystals which is called...

 of their local environment with remarkable accuracy.


Chromatophores are also found in membranes of phototroph
Phototrophs are the organisms that carry out photosynthesis to acquire energy. They use the energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into organic material to be utilized in cellular functions such as biosynthesis and respiration.Most phototrophs are autotrophs, also known as...

ic bacteria. Used primarily for photosynthesis, they contain bacteriochlorophyll
Bacteriochlorophylls are photosynthetic pigments that occur in various phototrophic bacteria. They were discovered by Von Neil in 1932 . They are related to chlorophylls, which are the primary pigments in plants, algae, and cyanobacteria. Groups that contain bacteriochlorophyll conduct...

 pigments and carotenoids. In purple bacteria
Purple bacteria
Purple bacteria or purple photosynthetic bacteria are proteobacteria that are phototrophic, that is capable of producing energy through photosynthesis...

, such as Rhodospirillum rubrum
Rhodospirillum rubrum
Rhodospirillum rubrum is a Gram-negative, purple-coloured Proteobacterium, with a size of 800 to 1000 nanometers.It is a facultative anaerobe, it can therefore use alcoholic fermentation under low oxygen conditions or use aerobic respiration in aerobic conditions. Under aerobic growth...

the light-harvesting proteins are intrinsic to the chromatophore membranes. However, in green sulfur bacteria
Green sulfur bacteria
The green sulfur bacteria are a family of obligately anaerobic photoautotrophic bacteria. Most closely related to the distant Bacteroidetes, they are accordingly assigned their own phylum....

 they are arranged in specialised antenna complex
Antenna complex
The light-harvesting complex of plants is an array of protein and chlorophyll molecules embedded in the thylakoid membrane which transfer light energy to one chlorophyll a molecule at the reaction center of a photosystem....

es called chlorosome
A Chlorosome is a photosynthetic antenna complex found in green sulfur bacteria and some green filamentous anoxygenic phototrophs . They differ from other antenna complexes by their large size and lack of protein matrix supporting the photosynthetic pigments...


External links

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