Science

How Redheads Got Their Ginger Locks: DNA Study Uncovers Eight Genes Linked To The Unique Hair Color

How Redheads Got Their Ginger Locks: DNA Study Uncovers Eight Genes Linked To The Unique Hair Color

Scientists are yet another step closer to understanding how redheads inherit their distinctive locks.

A new study analyzing the DNA of nearly 350,000 people has pinpointed an array of genes linked to particular hair colors, including eight genes associated with red hair.

Despite previous assumptions that red hair comes from a single gene, the study shows the reality is much more complex.

How Redheads Got Their Ginger Locks: DNA Study Uncovers Eight Genes Linked To The Unique Hair Color
How Redheads Got Their Ginger Locks: DNA Study Uncovers Eight Genes Linked To The Unique Hair Color

The findings help to explain why some people are known to carry the previously identified redhead gene, MC1R, but do not have red hair.

As the new study shows, there are more genes involved than simply the one.

‘We were able to use the power of UK Biobank, a huge and unique genetic study of half a million people in Britain, which allowed us to find these effects,’ said Professor Ian Jackson, of the Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh.

The study on thousands of people revealed that hundreds of genes contribute to variations in hair color.

Genetic differences in nearly 200 genes give rise the spectrum of colors between blonde and the darkest brunette, according to the researchers.

Surprisingly, many of these genes relate to texture, not pigmentation.

The researchers say this is the largest genetic study of hair color yet. The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

When it comes to red hair, the team says it’s more than just the gene MC1R that comes into play.

How Redheads Got Their Ginger Locks: DNA Study Uncovers Eight Genes Linked To The Unique Hair Color

This gene was previously identified in a study that found redheads inherit two versions of it – one from each parent – resulting in their red hair.

In the new study, the researchers identified eight genetic differences linked to red hair.

Some of these genes were responsible for controlling when MC1R is switched on or off, they say.

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As part of the research scientists collected DNA samples from the tumours of 400 people.

They found 42 per cent more sun-associated mutations in tumours from patients carrying the MC1R gene variant.

And the MC1R gene variant not only increased the number of spontaneous mutations caused by UV light, but also the number of other mutations in tumours.

This suggests that the gene raises the risk of cancer developing from mutations triggered by light as well as other sources.

‘We are very pleased that this work has unravelled most of the genetic variation contributing to differences in hair color among people,’ says Professor Albert Tenesa, of the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute.

In addition to the redhead genes, the team also identified genetic differences involved in determining if hair will grow to be curly or straight.

According to Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the study ‘has provided some fascinating insights into what makes us such distinct individuals.’