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Trending Science: Scientists identify genes associated with grey hair and unibrows

Researchers at University College London (UCL) have discovered a whole host of genes associated with human hair growth, including for the very time a gene they believe contributes to hair going grey.
Trending Science: Scientists identify genes associated with grey hair and unibrows
The study published in the journal ‘Nature Communications’ also identifies genes associated with monobrows, eyebrows and beard bushiness, hair colour and shape, and balding. The findings provide the best insights yet into the roots of human hair types, and potentially pave the way for the development of drugs that can slow or prevent certain changes, such as greying, before hair even appears on the scalp.

In particular, the gene IRF4, already known to influence hair colour by helping to make and store melanin – the substance that gives our eyes, skin and hair their distinct shades – is now pinned to greying hair as well. Hair goes grey with age when pigment cells stop producing melanin.

Importantly to note, IRF4 doesn’t cause grey hair but its presence seems correlated with an earlier loss of hair colour, which makes sense as the gene was already associated with pale hair shades.

Focusing on Latin America

The UCL research team sifted through the genomes of more than 6, 000 people from Latin America, covering a wide range of ethnic profiles. This region was chosen due to the fact that it is a genetic melting pot, with populations from European, Native American and Sub-Saharan African ancestors. In Sub-Saharan Africa, genes favour tight, curly hair, whilst in Europe, other genetic mutations have heralded wavy and blonde hair.

By taking note of the subjects' intrinsic hair traits and comparing them to their genomes, the research team were able to work out which genes often correlated to the same traits. In total, the study describes 18 genes, 10 of which appear to be new, contributing towards a better understanding of the genetic profiles behind hair types.

In addition to IRF4, the scientists found that the gene FOXL2 is associated with bushy eyebrows and monobrows, whilst the gene called EDAR – often associated with East Asian hair types – seemed to help hair on top of the head to grow straight whilst keeping facial hair sparse. The PRSS53 gene is now one of several linked to having curly hair.

Opportunities for cosmetics and forensics

For now, scientists are still unsure about the specific mechanism of how these genes and others influence hair type, but if this can be discovered, there is a big prospect for commercialisation through the development of products that could stop unwanted processes, such as greying hair, in their tracks.

‘People spend a lot of money changing their hair colour, but all of it goes on bleach and dyes,’ commented UCL study author Kaustubh Adhikari. ‘What this [study] shows is that there is a genetic component to hair greying, and that raises the possibility of drugs that can act on the hair internally, so it is already the colour you want when it comes out.’

The study could also have wider societal benefits. By connecting particular genes to distinctive hair types, shades and patterns, the results are expected to assist forensic experts draw up facial profiles of crime suspects based on the DNA they leave behind.

‘It’s exciting that we are finally beginning to figure out the nuts and bolts of genetics underlying normal human variation,’ said David Balding, another senior author of the UCL study. ‘If that feeds into the cosmetics industry that’s just a reflection of the world we live in... It will also lead to innovations in forensics: the possibility to predict features of someone who left DNA at a crime scene. I think the new knowledge is exciting and will lead to good outcomes.’

Source: Based on media reports

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