First Gray Hair Gene Found, Plucked out of Research

Carina Storrs, CNN, March 2, 2016

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Now researchers may have tracked down the first gene linked to gray hair, a search involving the hair types and genomes of more than 6,000 people living in five Latin American countries. They looked in these populations because they represent a good mix of backgrounds: Europeans and their sometimes fair or curly hair, Native Americans and African-Americans and their characteristic dark and straight or kinky hair.

Many people already know they face increased risk of going gray at an early age, if they’ve seen older relatives do so. The current study adds more support to the notion that graying is genetic, said Kaustubh Adhikari, a research associate in cell and developmental biology at University College London. Adhikari is the lead author of the study, which was published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The silver lining

The name of the hair color thief is IRF4, a gene that probably acts like a cog in the machine in a cellular process that churns out melanin pigment in the hair follicle. Graying happens as follicles gradually stop producing the pigment that gives hair its color, a process that happens at different rates for different people.

The researchers made the connection between the gray hair trait and a specific variation in IRF4 seen exclusively among Europeans, who are known to have a higher chance of premature graying than people of other descent, he added.

The silver lining (pun intended) is that the finding “gives researchers further leads in what they can investigate if they want to develop a drug to prevent or delay hair graying,” Adhikari said. {snip}

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Believe it or not, Adhikari found evidence that the IRF4 gene variation linked to gray hair may have actually been selected tens of thousands of years ago in human evolution. Although there was probably pressure for our ancestors to possess hair of a certain density and shape (curly or straight) in different climates, there might have been sexual selection for genes linked to hair color which also end up affecting gray hair.

That is not to say that silver foxes were the object of desire in the cave world. It’s probably more likely that blond hair, which the study found was also linked to the same version of the IRF4 gene, was enriched in the population because it stood out among all those darker complexions, Adhikari said.

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Although the current study only uncovered one gray hair gene, there are probably at least several other genes that play a role in stripping us of our hair color, Adhikari said.

But we are not entirely at the mercy of the genes. The current study found that environmental factors controlled about 70% of cases of hair graying. Genes were only responsible for about 30%, at least in the Latin American cohort.

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