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31 May 2001
The newsletter of the University of Oxford
Vol. 1 Issue 11

Red hair genes 100,000 years old

Researchers have found that ithe gene which causes red hair has a variation that may be up to 100,000 years old. They are also trying to understand why some people who carry variants of this gene are more susceptible to skin cancer than others.

Rosalind Harding, the Oxford member of the research team, is investigating why this gene has several common variants that account for most of the red hair found in Europe and if natural selection influences the gene.

Dr Harding, a population geneticist at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, said: 'This research is part of other work we are currently doing in genetics. We wanted to put the red hair gene into an evolutionary context, and the model used for examining this gene is a good basis for further research on other genes. We are doing more sequencing which will hopefully give us more data that are sensitive for revealing natural selection and therefore better results and clearer answers.'

It has been widely reported that the gene originated in Neanderthal man. Dr Harding says this just isn't true: 'We have never stated in our research that this gene is Neanderthal, but at the moment I cannot statistically prove that it isn't which is why others have drawn these conclusions.' It is thought that now people are moving around the world and meeting people from other cultures, the red hair gene is being spread into areas where it would not naturally occur, such as Jamaica. Red hair is also found in Papua New Guinea although it's not known why.

People from these parts of the world have a high proportion of black melanin in their skins, which helps protect them from skin cancer. It could be that those with the red hair gene and the red form of melanin may be more susceptible to skin cancer. Dr Harding says there is still a lot of work to be done: 'We still don't fully understand the links between having light skin which is associated with the red hair gene, and skin cancer especially in non-Europeans.'

Picture: Famous red-heads, such as Elizabeth I, may have a 100,000 year old history
Credit: By Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

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