Edinburgh scientists discover red-heads like Karen Gillan and Alex McLeish have 8 extra genes

FLAME-HAIRED figures from Mary Queen of Scots and Rob Roy MacGregor to football boss Alex McLeish have eight additional genes to explain their hair colour, according to new research.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh say the discovery of the additional genes linked to red hair has helped to solve the mystery of how redheads inherit their flaming locks.

The study - which also sheds light on blondes and brunettes - was the largest genetic study of hair colour to date.

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While only around 1-2% of the human population possesses the ginger gene, around 13% of Scots have red hair. Famous flame-haired Scots include actors Karen Gillan and Tony Curran to singers Annie Lennox and Lulu and even fictional characters such as Brave’s Princess Merida and Simpsons favourite, Groundskeeper Willie, while even the ancient Romans described the Celts as redheads.

Red-heads like Alex McLeish have 8 extra genes, according to new research

Until now it was thought that their red hair was controlled by a single gene, called MC1R. However, the new research sheds light on other genes that are involved.

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Previous studies had shown that redheads inherit two versions of the MC1R gene that leads to red hair – one from each of their parents.

Although almost everyone with red hair has two copies of the red-haired version of MC1R, not everyone carrying two red-haired versions is a redhead. Scientists knew there must be other genes involved but these have mostly remained a mystery until now.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh looked at DNA from almost 350,000 people who had taken part in the UK Biobank study. The study focused on people of European descent because they have greater variation in hair colour.

Comparing redheads to people with brown or black hair, they identified eight previously unknown genetic differences associated with red hair.

The team also looked at the functions of the genes they identified and found that some of them work by controlling when MC1R is switched on or off.

In addition to the redhead genes, the researchers uncovered differences in almost 200 genes associated with blondes and brunettes.

Scientists say there is a gradient of colour from black, through dark brown to light brown and blonde, which is caused by increasing number of genetic differences in these 200 genes.

The researchers were surprised to find that many of these 200 genetic differences were associated with hair texture rather than pigmentation. Others are involved in determining how the hair grows, such as whether curly or straight.

Professor Ian Jackson, of the Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit at the University of Edinburgh, said: “We were able to use the power of UK Biobank, a huge and unique genetic study of half a million people in Britain, which allowed us to find these effects.”

Professor Albert Tenesa, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said: “We are very pleased that this work has unravelled most of the genetic variation contributing to differences in hair colour among people.”

The study, published in Nature Communications, was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, added: “Once again collaborative research is helping to provide answers to some of life’s important questions. BBSRC is pleased to have helped support the largest genetic study of human hair colour. It has provided some fascinating insights into what makes us such distinct individuals.”

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