Hair and feather pigmentation is mainly determined by the distribution of two kinds of melanin, eumelanin and pheomelanin, which produce brown to black and yellow to red colorations, respectively. The agouti signaling protein (ASIP) acts as an antagonist or an inverse agonist of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), a G protein-coupled receptor for α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH). This antagonism of the MC1R by ASIP on melanocytes initiates a switch of melanin synthesis from eumelanogenesis to pheomelanogenesis in mammals. In the present study, we isolated multiple ASIP mRNA variants generated by alternative splicing and promoters in chicken feather follicles. The mRNA variants showed a discrete tissue distribution. However, mRNAs were expressed predominantly in the feather pulp of follicles. Paralleling mRNA distribution, ASIP immunoreactivity was observed in feather pulp. Interestingly, ASIP was stained with pheomelanin but not eumelanin in pulp areas that face developing barbs. We suggest that the elaborate color pattern of individual feathers is formed in part by the antagonistic action of ASIP that is produced by multiple mRNA variants in chicken feather follicles.
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