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Open Access Publications from the University of California

By protecting against cutaneous inflammation, epidermal pigmentation provided an additional advantage for ancestral humans.

  • Author(s): Lin, Tzu-Kai
  • Man, Mao-Qiang
  • Abuabara, Katrina
  • Wakefield, Joan S
  • Sheu, Hamm-Ming
  • Tsai, Jui-Chen
  • Lee, Chih-Hung
  • Elias, Peter M
  • et al.

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Pigmentation evolved in ancestral humans to protect against toxic, ultraviolet B irradiation, but the question remains: "what is being protected?" Because humans with dark pigmentation display a suite of superior epidermal functions in comparison with their more lightly pigmented counterparts, we hypothesized and provided evidence that dark pigmentation evolved in Africa to support cutaneous function. Because our prior clinical studies also showed that a restoration of a competent barrier dampens cutaneous inflammation, we hypothesized that resistance to inflammation could have provided pigmented hominins with yet another, important evolutionary benefit. We addressed this issue here in two closely related strains of hairless mice, endowed with either moderate (Skh2/J) or absent (Skh1) pigmentation. In these models, we showed that (a) pigmented mice display a markedly reduced propensity to develop inflammation after challenges with either a topical irritant or allergen in comparison with their nonpigmented counterparts; (b) visible and histologic evidence of inflammation was paralleled by reduced levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (i.e., IL-1α and INFα); (c) because depigmentation of Skh2/J mouse skin enhanced both visible inflammation and pro-inflammatory cytokine levels after comparable pro-inflammatory challenges, the reduced propensity to develop inflammation was directly linked to the presence of pigmentation; and (d) furthermore, in accordance with our prior work showing that pigment production endows benefits by reducing the surface pH of skin, acidification of albino (Skh1) mouse skin also protected against inflammation, and equalized cytokine levels to those found in pigmented skin. In summary, pigmentation yields a reduced propensity to develop inflammation, consistent with our hypothesis that dark pigmentation evolved in ancestral humans to provide a suite of barrier-linked benefits that now include resistance to inflammation.

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