Color Pattern Formation - Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

Color patterns are prominent features of most animals; they are highly variable and evolve rapidly leading to large diversities between species even within a single genus. As targets for natural as well as sexual selection, they are of high evolutionary significance. We use the zebrafish (Danio rerio) as a model organism to study pigment pattern formation in a vertebrate.

Zebrafish display a conspicuous pattern of alternating blue and golden stripes on the body and on the anal- and tailfins. The three types of pigment cells in zebrafish, which are responsible for the colour pattern, melanophores, iridophores and xanthophores, originate from neural crest-derived stem cells associated with the dorsal root ganglia of the peripheral nervous system. Clonal analysis indicates that these progenitors remain multipotent and plastic beyond embryogenesis well into metamorphosis, when the adult colour pattern develops.

Pigment cells share a lineage with neuronal cells of the peripheral nervous system; progenitors spread along the spinal nerves. The proliferation of pigment cells is regulated by competitive interactions among cells of the same type. An even spacing involves collective migration and contact inhibition of locomotion of the three cell types distributed in superimposed monolayers in the skin. This mode of colouring the skin is probably common to fish, whereas different patterns emerge by species specific cell interactions among the different pigment cell types. These interactions are mediated by channels involved in direct cell contact between the pigment cells, as well as mostly unknown cues provided by the tissue environment.

The colour patterns in closely related Danio species are amazingly different; their variation offers a great opportunity to investigate the genetic and developmental basis of colour pattern evolution in vertebrates. Exciting technical developments of the recent years, especially next-generation sequencing technologies and the novel possibilities of genome editing with the CRISPR/Cas9 system, allow to easily expand from model organisms into other species and directly test the function of genes by targeted knock outs and allele replacements. Thus, models and hypotheses about pigment pattern formation derived from zebrafish can now be tested in other Danio species. These studies will lay the foundation to understand not only the genetic basis of colour pattern variation between Danio species, but also the evolution of colour patterns in other vertebrates. 

Research Group Colour Pattern Formation

The zebrafish, Danio rerio, owing its name to the striking stereotypic pattern of horizontal blue and golden stripes, has emerged as the model organism for the genetic analysis of colour pattern formation in vertebrates. During the last years an ever increasing number of adult viable mutants with altered colour patterns have been collected, and novel approaches in lineage tracing in individual fish were developed, providing the unique oppor­tunity to access the genetic and cell bio­logical background of the complex and protracted developmental process in this species. The colour patterns in closely related Danio species are amazingly different; their variation offers a great opportunity to investigate the genetic and developmental basis of colour pattern evolution in vertebrates.


M Podobnik, H-G Frohnhoefer, CM Dooley, A Eskova, C Nuesslein-Volhard, and U Irion, "Evolution of the potassium channel gene Kcnj13 underlies colour pattern diversification in Danio fish," Nature Communications 11 (1), 6230 (2020).
A Eskova, HG Frohnhöfer, C Nüsslein-Volhard, and U Irion, "Galanin Signaling in the Brain Regulates Color Pattern Formation in Zebrafish," Current Biology 30 (2), 298-303 (2020).
U Irion and C Nüsslein-Volhard, "The identification of genes involved in the evolution of color patterns in fish," Current Opinion in Genetics & Development 57, 31-38 (2019).
U Irion, A. P. Singh and Nüsslein-Volhard, C.
The developmental genetics of vertebrate colour pattern formation:  Lessons from Zebrafish
Current Topics Developmental Biology (2016)
C Nüsslein-Volhard and AP Singh, "How fish color their skin: A paradigm for development and evolution of adult patterns: Multipotency, plasticity, and cell competition regulate proliferation and spreading of pigment cells in Zebrafish coloration," Bioessays 39 (3), 1600231 (2017).
C Nüsslein-Volhard
Schönheit der Tiere: Evolution biologischer Ästhetik
Mit Illustrationen von Suse Grützmacher. Matthes und Seitz, Berlin (2017)
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