Grey hair could one day be prevented with new gene discovery

RESEARCHERS have discovered the first gene responsible for grey hair in humans, opening the door to strategies that may be able to prevent or reverse hair greying. Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study reveals how a variant in the gene interferon regulatory factor 4 (IRF4) plays a role in the greying of human hair.
Hair greying is a process typically associated with aging. It is believed to occur when melanin – the pigment that gives hair, skin and eyes their colour – is no longer produced. For their study, co-lead author Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari, of the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology at University College London (UCL), UK, and colleagues set out to determine whether IRF4 – already known to play a role in hair, eye and skin colour – is associated with hair greying.
The researchers also wanted to find out whether certain genes are responsible for the density and shape of human hair, such as whether it is straight or curly. To reach their findings, the team analysed the DNA of 6,357 individuals – of whom 55% were female – from five Latin American countries: Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru. Participants were a combination of European, Native American and African ancestry.
The researchers assessed all participants for their hair shape, colour, balding and greying, and men were analysed for beard, eyebrow and monobrow thickness. By analysing the hair traits of participants and comparing it with their genomes, the team was able to pinpoint genes that are associated with particular hair characteristics. For the first time, the team linked a variant in the IRF4 gene to hair greying, finding that the presence of this gene variant correlated with hair greying among participants, particularly those of European ancestry.
It was already known that the IRF4 gene helps regulate the production and storage of melanin, influencing the colour of skin, eyes and hair, but it had never before been linked to hair greying. The researchers say understanding what role this gene plays in hair greying could pave the way for strategies to combat grey hair. “We have found the first genetic association to hair greying, which could provide a good model to understand aspects of the biology of human aging. Understanding the mechanism of the IRF4 greying association could also be relevant for developing ways to delay hair greying.”
As well as a gene associated with hair greying, the team also uncovered a gene variant called protease serine S1 family member 53 (PRSS53) that influences hair curliness. “The PRSS53 enzyme functions in the part of the hair follicle that shapes the growing hair fibre, and this new genetic variation, associated with straight hair in East Asians and Native Americans, supports the view that hair shape is a recent selection in the human family,” says study coauthor Prof. Desmond Tobin, of the UK’s University of Bradford.

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