Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Cancer Biology


Program in Molecular Medicine

First Thesis Advisor

Craig J. Ceol, PhD


Melanocytes, Melanoma, Zebrafish, Cell Differentiation, Regeneration, Wnt Proteins


Dissertations, UMMS; Melanocytes; Zebrafish; Cell Differentiation; Regeneration; Wnt Proteins


During regeneration, cells must coordinate proliferation and differentiation to rebuild tissues that are lost. Understanding how source cells execute the regeneration process has been a longstanding goal in regenerative biology with implications in wound healing and cell replacement therapies. Melanocytes are pigment-producing cells in the skin of vertebrates that can be lost during hair graying, injury and disease-related depigmentation. Melanoma is an aggressive skin cancer that develops from melanocytes, and it is hypothesized that melanoma cells have properties that are similar to melanocyte stem cells.

To gain insight into melanocyte regeneration we set out to identify the source of regeneration melanocytes in adult zebrafish and the path through which progenitor cells reconstitute the pigment pattern. Using targeted cell ablation and single cell lineage-tracing analyses we identified that a majority of regeneration melanocytes arise through direct differentiation of mitfa-expressing progenitor cells. Concurrently, other mitfa-expressing cells divide symmetrically to generate additional mitfa-positive progenitors, thus maintaining regeneration capability. Using reporter assays and drug studies, we found that Wnt signaling gets turned on in progenitor cells during regeneration and Wnt inhibition after melanocyte ablation blocks regeneration. Based on our finding that Wnt signaling is active in differentiated melanocytes but not in the progenitor cells, we explored the role of Wnt signaling in tumor initiation. We found that approximately half of the melanomas are Wnt silent, and overexpression of dkk1b, a negative regulator of canonical Wnt signaling, accelerates melanoma onset.

This work defines an unappreciated contribution by direct differentiation in melanocyte regeneration and suggests a broader role for this process in the maintenance of epithelial sheets. This study also identifies a shared pathway between melanocyte progenitors and melanoma cells, which could be applicable to other cancers.



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