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Chromatophores Definition

Chromatophores are defined as the cells which produce colour. The common types of chromatophores are pigment-containing cells, or groups of cells, observed in a vast range of animals such as fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, cephalopods, octopus chromatophores, and chromatophores cuttlefish. Mammals and birds, in addition, possess a class of cells called melanocytes for colouration.

Chromatophore cells that are produced in the neural crest throughout embryonic development, are mostly responsible for the creation of skin and eye colour in ectothermic animals. Xanthophores (yellow), iridophores (reflective), melanophores (black or brown), leucophores (white), erythrophores (red), and cyanophores (blue) are the subclasses of mature chromatophores depending on their colour under white light. Though most chromatophores have pigments that absorb certain wavelengths of light, iridophores, and leucophores get their colour from their scattering and optical interference qualities.

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Artificial chromatophores: These chromatophores change colour when exposed to sunlight. They can lead to novel military camouflage, flexible displays, and soft robotics. This invention is based on cephalopods like octopuses, cuttlefish, and squids' incredible power to change the colour and texture of their delicate skin for camouflage and communication.


Following Sangiovanni's chromoforo, the word chromatophore has been coined to describe pigment-bearing cells originating from the neural crest of cold-blooded cephalopods and vertebrates. The name derives from the Greek terms chroma, which indicates "colour," and phoros, which means "bearing". The term chromatocyte (from the Greek kytos, referring to "cell") has been coined to describe the cells responsible for colour in mammals and birds. In such animals, just a single cell type, the melanocyte, has been discovered.

It wasn't until the 1960s that chromatophore cells were thoroughly understood enough to have been classed just on the basis of their looks. Even if the biochemistry of the pigments could be more relevant to scientific knowledge of how cells function, this classification system survives to this day.

Xanthophores and Erythrophores

Xanthophores are chromophores that hold a number of yellow pteridine pigments, while erythrophores comprise mostly red/orange carotenoids. However, vesicles containing pteridine and carotenoids can occasionally be detected in the very same cell, so in that situation, the overall colour is determined by the red-to-yellow pigment ratio. As a result, it's not always easy to tell the difference between these chromatophores.

Pteridines could be made among most chromatophores from guanosine triphosphate, but xanthophores seem to have additional metabolic pathways that allow them to acquire yellow pigment. Carotenoids, on the other hand, are processed and transferred to erythrophores. This was initially established by feeding carotene-deficient crickets to typically green frogs. The red/orange carotenoid colour 'filter' was not found in the erythrophores because carotene was not included in the frogs' diet. The frogs seemed blue rather than green as a result of this.

Iridophores and Leucophores

Iridophores, also known as guanophores, are chromatophores that use plates of crystalline chemochromes derived from guanine to reflect light. Due to the extreme constructive interference of light, they produce iridescent colours when lighted. Stacks of guanine plates separated by sheets of cytoplasm generate minuscule, one-dimensional Bragg mirrors in fish iridophores. The type of colour seen is determined by the chemochrome's orientation and optical thickness. Iridophores produce bright-blue or -green colours by employing biochromes like coloured filters, resulting in an optical phenomenon termed Rayleigh or Tyndall scattering.

The leucophore, a comparable type of chromatophore, is seen in several fish, particularly the tapetum lucidum. They use crystalline purines (mostly guanine) to reflect light, just as iridophores. Leucophores, on the other hand, have more structured crystals than iridophores, which lessen diffraction. They emit a white sheen when exposed to white light. In fish, the distinction between leucophores and iridophores may not always be clear, although iridophores are thought to generate iridescent or metallic colours, and leucophores create reflected white hues.


Because of its light-absorbing properties, eumelanin, a form of melanin found in melanophores, seems black or dark-brown. It is stored in melanosomes, which are small vesicles that are scattered all throughout the cell. In a sequence of catalyzed chemical processes, eumelanin is made from tyrosine. It's a complicated compound having pyrrole rings and dihydroxyindole and dihydroxyindole-2-carboxylic acid units. Tyrosinase is a crucial enzyme in the production of melanin. Whenever this protein is faulty, no melanin is produced, leading to albinism in some forms. Various pigments are packed alongside eumelanin in certain amphibian species. In the melanophores of phyllomedusa frogs, for instance, a novel deep (wine) red pigment has been discovered.

  • Chromatophores in Humans:

To produce hair, skin, and eye colour, humans only have a single type of pigment cell, the mammalian analogue of melanophores. Melanophores are the most commonly researched chromatophore for such a reason, as well as the fact that their large quantity and contrasting colour make them extremely simple to see.


Instead of pigments, structural coloration includes approximately all of the bright blues seen in animals and plants. In cells called cyanophora, certain varieties of Synchiropus splendidus do have vesicles of a cyan biochrome of unknown chemical structure. Despite their restricted taxonomic range, cyanophores (along with other unique chromatophore types) may be found in other amphibians and fish. Brightly coloured chromatophores with unknown pigments have been identified in both poison dart and glass frogs, while erythro-iridophores, atypical dichromatic chromatophores, were identified in Pseudochromis Diadema.

Chromatophores in Bacteria

A chromatophore in bacteria is a coloured, membrane-associated vesicle utilized to carry out photosynthesis in certain photosynthetic bacteria. They're made up of several coloured pigments.

Carotenoids and bacteriochlorophyll pigments are found in chromatophores. Light-harvesting proteins are built into the chromatophores in bacteria membranes of purple bacteria like Rhodospirillum rubrum. But they are grouped in specialised antenna complexes termed chlorosomes in green sulphur bacteria.

Chromatophores Function

In applied research, chromatophores sometimes are utilized. Zebrafish larvae, for instance, are employed to investigate how chromatophores organize and interact to produce the consistent horizontal striped pattern observed in adult fish. Within the subject of evolutionary developmental biology, it is viewed as a good model system for comprehending patterning. 

In addition to melanoma and albinism, chromatophore biology has been utilized to represent human conditions and diseases. Slc24a5, the gene accountable for the golden zebrafish strain's melanophore specificity, was later discovered to have a human analogue that closely corresponds with skin colour.

Because animals with particular visual abnormalities fail to background adjust to light settings, chromatophores are frequently utilized as a biomarker of blindness in cold-blooded organisms. Human homologues of pigment translocation receptors in melanophores are likely to become involved in processes including appetite suppression and tanning, providing them promising therapeutic targets.

Other researchers have devised methods for employing melanophores and lamellar chromatophores as biosensors and for detecting diseases quickly (based on the discovery that pertussis toxin blocks pigment aggregation in fish melanophores). 

Military applications of chromatophore-mediated colour shifts were being proposed, primarily as a sort of active camouflage that might render objects practically undetectable, similar to how cuttlefish do.

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FAQs on Chromatophore

1. How Do Chromatophores Work?

Ans. Electrical activity inside a chromatophore neuron leads the chromatophore's radial muscle fibres to move outward toward the chromatophore's perimeter, enlarging the central pigment sack.

2. Do Chromatophores Have the Ability to Change Colour?

Ans. Each chromatophore cell does have a cytoelastic sacculus, which is a stretchy sac loaded with pigment which might be red, brown, yellow, or black in colour. For instance, When an octopus observes something that causes it to change colour, such as a predator or prey, its brain sends messages to the chromatophores.

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