Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tests reveal gene for people's skin color

It's no secret that skin comes in a vast array of shades. However, the genetics that control this phenomenon have remained a mystery. Researchers have now tracked down a gene that they propose plays a major role in determining each person's skin color.

Keith C. Cheng of the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pa., and his colleagues originally found this novel gene in zebra fish, an animal popular among scientists studying genetics.

The researchers worked with unusual golden fish that have honey-colored stripes instead of the species' typical black stripes. Their research had shown that the golden variety has smaller pigment-containing cells than normal zebra fish do and that the golden fish's cells contain fewer and lighter pigment particles.

Cheng's team wondered whether the same genetic mechanism regulates skin color in both fish and people. To investigate, his team used a variety of genetic techniques to find the genes responsible for the golden zebra fish's atypical color. Eventually, the investigators identified a mutation in a gene called slc24a5.

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., warns that the discovered gene is only indirectly connected with race, a complex sociological concept based on factors such as ancestral geography and culture. Adds Collins, "To say that this is the gene for race is a fundamental misconception of ... that complex term."

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