The occurrence of black fur, or melanism, in many mammalian species is known to be linked to DNA sequence variation in the agouti signaling protein (Asip) gene, which is a major determinant of eumelanin and pheomelanin pigments in coat color. We investigated 38 agouti (i.e., banded wildtype) and four melanistic Rattus rattus species complex (RrC) lineage II specimens from Okinawa Island, Ryukyu Islands, Japan, for genetic variation in three exons and associated flanking regions in the Asip gene. On Okinawa, a predicted loss-of-function mutation caused by a cysteine to serine amino acid change at p.124C>S (c.370T>A) in the highly conserved functional domain of Asip was found in melanistic rats, but was absent in agouti specimens, suggesting that the p.124C>S mutation is responsible for the observed melanism. Phylogeographic analysis found that Asip sequences from Okinawan RrC lineage II, including both agouti and melanistic specimens, differed from: 1) both agouti and melanistic RrC lineage I from Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, and 2) agouti RrC lineages I and II from South Australia. This suggests the possibility of in-situ mutation of the Asip gene, either within the RrC lineage II population on Okinawa or in an unsampled RrC lineage II population with biogeographic links to Okinawa, although incomplete lineage sorting could not be ruled out.
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Vol. 34 • No. 6