PURPOSE: The anatomical basis for iris color has long been a controversial issue in ophthalmology. Recent studies demonstrated that in Caucasians, blue-eyed, gray-eyed, and hazel-eyed individuals have comparable numbers of iris melanocytes. The present investigation was carried out to compare melanocyte numbers in the irides of Asian, African American, and Caucasian brown-eyed individuals. METHODS: Paraffin-embedded sections from 71 brown-colored irides were incubated with rabbit anti-cow antibody against S100a, linked with an FITC conjugate antibody, and counterstained with Evans blue. Cells were counted under a fluorescence microscope and scored as melanocytes or other cells. Cell number, density, and iris area were calculated for each specimen. RESULTS: Caucasian and African American irides had comparable mean total melanocyte numbers. Asian irides had fewer total melanocytes than African American (P = .042) and Caucasian (P = .001) irides and smaller total number of cells (ie, melanocytes plus other cells) than African American (P = .054) or Caucasian (P = .009) irides. CONCLUSIONS: There is a statistically significant smaller mean total melanocyte number and mean total cellularity in Asian irides as compared to Caucasian and African American irides. This difference appears to be due to the combination of smaller iris area and lower melanocyte density in the Asian irides. The possibility exists that this may be a factor in ethnic variations in certain ocular diseases.