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Changes create colourful continent

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    Changes create colourful continent 5:00AM Wednesday October 24, 2007 By Maggie Fox A few dozen genetic changes can help explain why people of European descent
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1 3:06 PM
      Changes create colourful continent

      5:00AM Wednesday October 24, 2007
      By Maggie Fox

      A few dozen genetic changes can help explain why people of European descent have so many different shades of hair, eye and skin colour - but it is still impossible to tell the colour of someone's eyes or hair based on DNA alone, researchers in Iceland say.

      The team at deCODE genetics in Reykjavik said their scans of 7000 Icelandic and Dutch people found 60 separate genetic mutations linked with hair, eye and skin colour.

      As with earlier gene surveys, no single mutation or cluster of mutations can tell whether a person has brown, blue or green eyes; brown, blond or red hair or whether his or her skin is fair or freckled.

      But, writing in the journal Nature Genetics, Kari Stefansson of deCODE genetics and colleagues said their new suite of genes help narrow down the possibilities and might be used to study certain diseases that are more common in people with certain colouring.

      "It has long been thought that before the migrations that first brought our species out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, ancestral human populations had characteristically dark skin, eyes and hair," the researchers wrote.

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      In Europe, humans evolved big variations in skin, eye and hair colour. But skin and hair tends to be darker in populations originating from near the equator, which supports the idea that pigmentation gives sun protection.

      It is unclear why people living in the North have lighter skin.

      "The most obvious functional advantage of lighter skin pigmentation in northerly latitudes is that it facilitates the synthesis of vitamin D3 in spite of low levels of ultraviolet radiation exposure," the researchers wrote.

      And the big variations in eye and hair colour among Europeans are even more mysterious.

      Dr Stefansson's team found evidence that these variations are heavily selected for, however, meaning people who have them were more likely to reproduce and pass them along to offspring.

      This could be because they provide a survival advantage, or merely because people liked such traits and tended to choose mates with them.

      The researchers found 60 different single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, associated with red, blond or brown hair, brown, blue or green eyes, freckles and skin sensitivity to sunlight.

      SNPs are single-letter changes in the genetic code.

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