Melanin produced in follicular melanocytes is the major basis for pigmentation of hair and wool in mammals. Two major types of melanin may be synthesized, the black/brown eumelanin and the reddish/yellow pheomelanin. Based on available cell biological evidence and reasonable assumptions, a mathematical model is developed to improve our understanding of melanogenic switching, i.e. the switching between eumelanin and pheomelanin production depending on the extracellular signalling context. In 1993, Ito proposed that melanogenic switching is due to the covalent binding of the intermediate DOPAquinone to the enzyme glutathione reductase. We were only able to obtain a good fit to available experimental data on the relation between pheomelanin levels and the activity of the key enzyme tyrosinase by taking Ito's hypothesis into account. Thus, our results support Ito's hypothesis, and suggest that melanogenic switching may be due to a jump between two stable production pattern states when the tyrosinase activity varies between two bifurcation levels. This implies that small changes in the levels of external regulatory factors may cause an accentuated change in the proportion of the produced colour pigments and may explain the fact that mammalian coat patterns often exhibit sharply delimited patches of either black or reddish colour. © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
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