Subtle change in DNA, protein levels determines blond or brunette tresses, study finds

PUBLIC RELEASE DATE:

1-Jun-2014

Contact: Krista Conger kristac@stanford.edu 650-725-5371 Stanford University Medical Center

STANFORD, Calif. A molecule critical to stem cell function plays a major role in determining human hair color, according to a study from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The study describes for the first time the molecular basis for one of our most noticeable traits. It also outlines how tiny DNA changes can reverberate through our genome in ways that may affect evolution, migration and even human history.

"We've been trying to track down the genetic and molecular basis of naturally occurring traits such as hair and skin pigmentation in fish and humans to get insight into the general principles by which traits evolve," said David Kingsley, PhD, professor of developmental biology. "Now we find that one of the most crucial signaling molecules in mammalian development also affects hair color."

Kingsley, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is the senior author of the study, which will be published online June 1 in Nature Genetics. Research specialist Catherine Guenther, PhD, is the lead author.

The researchers found that the blond hair commonly seen in Northern Europeans is caused by a single change in the DNA that regulates the expression of a gene that encodes a protein called KITLG, also known as stem cell factor. This change affects how much KITLG is expressed in the hair follicles without changing how it's expressed in the rest of the body. Introducing the change into normally brown-haired laboratory mice yields an animal with a decidedly lighter coat not quite Norma Jeane to Marilyn Monroe, but significant nonetheless.

The study shows that even small, tissue-specific changes in the expression of genes can have noticeable morphological effects. It also emphasizes how difficult it can be to clearly connect specific DNA changes with particular clinical or phenotypic outcomes. In this case, the change is subtle: A single nucleotide called an adenine is replaced by another called a guanine on human chromosome 12. The change occurs over 350,000 nucleotides away from the KITLG gene and only alters the amount of gene expression about 20 percent a relatively tiny blip on a biological scale more often assessed in terms of gene expression being 100 percent "on" or "off."

"What we're seeing is that this regulatory region exercises exquisite control over where, and how much, KITLG expression occurs," said Kingsley. "In this case, it controls hair color. In another situation perhaps under the influence of a different regulatory region it probably controls stem cell division. Dialing up and down the expression of an essential growth factor in this manner could be a common mechanism that underlies many different traits."

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Subtle change in DNA, protein levels determines blond or brunette tresses, study finds

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