Scientists discover genetic key to red hair

A recent study reveals previously unknown genetic characteristics belonging to redheads, unravelling the mystery of our great hair colour

Jake Stones
13 Dec 2018
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In the largest genetic study ever conducted on hair colour, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have discovered eight previously unknown genetic traits belonging to the redheaded among us.

After analysing the DNA from 350,000 people who took part in the UK Biobank study, scientists were able to debunk previous knowledge on the genetics of redheads.

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Previously, it was assumed we red-haired folk only received our wondrous ginger locks from a single gene, MC1R, which needs to be passed down by both parents in some form.

However, following a comparison of people with black and brown hair, the scientists were able to identify eight previously unknown genetic characteristics belonging to redheads. MC1R still seems to be a prominent gene in deciding our hair colour, explaining 73% of heritability. However, with this information the researchers believe they’ve discovered genes which account for 90% of the heritability of red hair.

The functions of the eight new genes seem to vary. Some control whether or not MC1R is active or not, whereas others control aspects like texture of hair. What this means is that the colour still comes from MC1R, however it needs a few extras to help it be the red hair it was born to be.

The research team also identified 200 other genetic characteristics associated with blondes and brunettes. As well as discerning which genes bring about different colours of hair, this finding also revealed associated genetics of texture and growth. Ultimately, picking and choosing a style of hair might become a realisable possibility.

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Prof Albert Tenesa, a member of the research team, said that they were “very pleased that this work has unravelled most of the genetic variation contributing to differences in hair colour among people.”

A redhead myself, I couldn’t be happier. When deploying my go-to answer for queries about my hair – “good genes,” naturally – I know with more authority just what those good genes comprise.

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