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Skin 'Sees' UV Light, Starts Producing Pigment

Posted: November 7, 2011

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In the team's first experiment, the scientists were looking to see whether UV light instigated a calcium signaling response. They found nothing. But guessing that the skin might sense light like the eyes do, they added retinal, a co-factor of opsin receptors including rhodopsin.

"When we did that, we saw an immediate and massive calcium response," says Wicks, the study's lead author.

Further investigations found that the cells contained rhodopsin RNA and protein. Under UV light, when the scientists reduced rhodopsin levels in the cells, calcium signaling was reduced. Later, when they starved cells of retinal, they found that melanin production dropped. The authors also determined that long-wavelength UVA light, rather than short-wavelength UVB light, is what stimulates rhodopsin in melanocytes.

During several experiments they were able to trace the following process: When UVA light strikes rhodopsin receptors with retinal, calcium signals are triggered within a few seconds. After an hour, measurable amounts of melanin accumulate, although in relatively small quantities compared to the production that will occur within 24 hours.

As much as they learned, Oancea and Wicks still have some questions. One is whether rhodopsin is acting alone or in concert with another yet undiscovered receptor. Another question is whether melanocytes immediately begin exporting melanin to other kinds of skin cells for protection or whether they keep the early supply for themselves.