The human melanocyte: A model system to study the complexity of cellular aging and transformation in non-fibroblastic cells

D. Bandyopadhyay, N. Timchenko, T. Suwa, P. J. Hornsby, J. Campisi, E. E. Medrano

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

59 Scopus citations


The melanocyte is a neural crest-derived cell that localizes in humans to several organs including the epidermis, eye, inner ear and leptomeninges. In the skin, melanocytes synthesize and transfer melanin pigments to surrounding keratinocytes, leading to skin pigmentation and protection against solar exposure. We have investigated the process of replicative senescence and accompanying irreversible cell cycle arrest, in melanocytes in culture. As was found in other cell types, progressive telomere shortening appears to trigger replicative senescence in normal melanocytes. In addition, senescence is associated with increased binding of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor (CDK-I) p16INK4a to CDK4, down-regulation of cyclin E protein levels (and consequent loss of cyclin E/CDK2 activity), underphosphorylation of the retinoblastoma protein RB and subsequent increased levels of E2F4-RB repressive complexes. In contrast to fibroblasts, however, the CDK-Is p21Waf-1 and p27Kip-1 are also down-regulated. These changes appear to be important for replicative senescence because they do not occur in melanocytes that overexpress the catalytic subunit of the enzyme telomerase (hTERT), or in melanomas, which are tumors that originate from melanocytes or melanoblasts. In contrast to unmodified melanocytes, hTERT overexpressing (telomerized) melanocytes displayed telomerase activity, stable telomere lengths and an extended replicative life span. However, telomerized melanocytes show changes in cell cycle regulatory proteins, including increased levels of cyclin E, p21Waf-1 and p27Kip-1. Cyclin E, p21Waf-1 and p27Kip-1 are also elevated in many primary melanomas, whereas p16INK4a is mutated or deleted in many invasive and metastatic melanomas. Thus, the molecular mechanisms leading to melanocyte senescence and transformation differ significantly from fibroblasts. This suggests that different cell types may use different strategies to halt the cell cycle in response to telomere attrition and thus prevent replicative immortality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1265-1275
Number of pages11
JournalExperimental Gerontology
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitors
  • Cyclin-dependent kinases
  • Cyclins
  • E2F
  • Telomerase
  • hTERT-melanocytes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Aging
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Endocrinology
  • Cell Biology


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