Named originally for their effects on peripheral end organs, the melanocortin system controls a diverse set of physiological processes through a series of five G-protein-coupled receptors and several sets of small peptide ligands. The central melanocortin system plays an essential role in homeostatic regulation of body weight, in which two alternative ligands, alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone and agouti-related protein, stimulate and inhibit receptor signaling in several key brain regions that ultimately affect food intake and energy expenditure. Much of what we know about the relationship between central melanocortin signaling and body weight regulation stems from genetic studies. Comparative genomic studies indicate that melanocortin receptors used for controlling pigmentation and body weight regulation existed more than 500 million years ago in primitive vertebrates, but that fine-grained control of melanocortin receptors through neuropeptides and endogenous antagonists developed more recently. Recent studies based on dog coat-color genetics revealed a new class of melanocortin ligands, the beta-defensins, which reveal the potential for cross talk between the melanocortin and the immune systems.
Structural and molecular evolutionary analysis of Agouti and Agouti-related proteins.
Agouti (ASIP) and Agouti-related protein (AgRP) are endogenous antagonists of melanocortin receptors that play critical roles in the regulation of pigmentation and energy balance, respectively, and which arose from a common ancestral gene early in vertebrate evolution. The N-terminal domain of ASIP facilitates antagonism by binding to an accessory receptor, but here we show that the N-terminal domain of AgRP has the opposite effect and acts as a prodomain that negatively regulates antagonist function. Computational analysis reveals similar patterns of evolutionary constraint in the ASIP and AgRP C-terminal domains, but fundamental differences between the N-terminal domains. These studies shed light on the relationships between regulation of pigmentation and body weight, and they illustrate how evolutionary structure function analysis can reveal both unique and common mechanisms of action for paralogous gene products.