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New hair color genes discovered

Researchers from a number of organizations, including Erasmus MC and King's College London, have found more than 100 new genes that play a key role in determining human hair color.

DNA StoreThe researchers published their results in the leading scientific journal Nature Genetics. The discovery provides new insights on the genetic complexity of hair color variations, and also helps to better understand the causes of skin cancer and other diseases.

The new genes are also important for forensic science applications. Earlier studies had already shown that hair color is largely genetically determined, but only a handful of genes had been found of which some had little effect.

The new study, the largest ever in this field, used the DNA of almost 300,000 people of European origin, together with the hair color provided by the participants themselves. The hair color was compared to the genetic information on millions of different locations on the genome. 124 genes were found to be associated with hair color variations. For more than 100 of these genes it was until now unknown that they are associated with pigmentation.

Prof. Manfred Kayser of Erasmus MC's department of Genetic Identification headed the study together with Prof. Tim Spector of King's College London. "The large number of new genes enables us to predict hair color more accurately from DNA than was previously possible based on the limited number of genes known", Prof. Kayser says. "Particularly in forensic investigations, where DNA is found at a crime scene, predicting externally visible characteristics, such as hair color, from DNA can be very useful in finding unknown perpetrators who cannot be identified using standard forensic DNA profiling."

Manfred Kayser has been coordinating the European Horizon2020 VISAGE project since May 2017. This project aims to help better predict the visible attributes of unknown perpetrators from DNA traces recovered at crime scenes. See VISAGE Project kicks off for previous reports on this project.

Date published: 16 April 2018.

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