The Red and the Black

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats


Citation Stats

Attention Stats


Pigmentation, which is primarily determined by the amount, the type, and the distribution of melanin, shows a remarkable diversity in human populations, and in this sense, it is an atypical trait.-E.J. Parra. Melanin is found throughout the human body, skin, eye, brain, hair, and inner ear, yet its molecular structure remains elusive. Researchers have characterized the molecular building blocks of melanin but have not been able to describe how those components fit together in the overall architecture of the pigment. Melanin is categorized into two distinct classes, pheomelanin (red) and eumelanin (black). Although these classes share a common biosynthetic origin, specific molecular reactions occurring early in pigment production differentiate these two types. Pure eumelanin is found throughout nature, which has allowed researchers to characterize and quantify its chemical properties. However, pure pheomelanin is not observed in nature and rarely makes up more than similar to 25% of the total melanin present. In this Account, we explore our current understanding of the structure and reactivity of the red and black pigments. Epidemiological studies of skin and ocular cancers suggest that increasing relative proportions of pheomelanin correlate with increased risk factors for these diseases. Therefore, understanding the factors that control the relative abundance of the two pigments has become increasingly important. Consequently, researchers have worked to elucidate the chemistry of pheomelanin to determine whether the pigment could cause these cancers and, if so, by what mechanisms. The photoactivation of oxygen by pheomelanin in the UV-A range could contribute to the development of UV-induced cancers: recent measurement of the surface photoionization threshold of intact melanosomes reveals a lower photoionization potential for pheomelanin than eumelanin. A complementary study of intact human melanosomes isolated from different colored irides reveals that the absorption coefficient of the melanosome decreases with increasing pheomelanin content. These results suggest that the epidemiological data may simply result from an increased exposure of the underlying tissues to UV light.





Simon,John D.;Peles,Dana N.. 2010. The Red and the Black. Accounts of Chemical Research 43(11): 1452-1460.

Published Version (Please cite this version)


Unless otherwise indicated, scholarly articles published by Duke faculty members are made available here with a CC-BY-NC (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial) license, as enabled by the Duke Open Access Policy. If you wish to use the materials in ways not already permitted under CC-BY-NC, please consult the copyright owner. Other materials are made available here through the author’s grant of a non-exclusive license to make their work openly accessible.