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Variants of the melanocyte–stimulating hormone receptor gene are associated with red hair and fair skin in humans

Abstract

Melanin pigmentation protects the skin from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR). There are two types of melanin, the red phaeome-lanin and the black eumelanin, both of which are present in human skin1. Eumelanin is photoprotective whereas phaeomelanin, because of its potential to generate free radicals in response to UVR2, may contribute to UV-induced skin damage. Individuals with red hair have a predominance of phaeomelain in hair and skin and/or a reduced ability to produce eumelanin, which may explain why they fail to tan and are at risk from UVR1. In mammals the relative proportions of phaeomelanin and eumelanin are regulated by melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), which acts via its receptor (MC1R), on melanocytes, to increase the synthesis of eumelanin3,4 and the product of the agouti locus which antagonises this action5. In mice, mutations at either the MC1R gene or agouti affect the pattern of melanogene-sis resulting in changes in coat colour6,7. We now report the presence of MC1R gene sequence variants in humans. These were found in over 80% of individuals with red hair and/or fair skin that tans poorly but in fewer than 20% of individuals with brown or black hair and in less than 4% of those who showed a good tanning response. Our findings suggest that in humans, as in other mammals, the MC1R is a control point in the regulation of pigmentation phenotype and, more importantly, that variations in this protein are associated with a poor tanning response.

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Valverde, P., Healy, E., Jackson, I. et al. Variants of the melanocyte–stimulating hormone receptor gene are associated with red hair and fair skin in humans. Nat Genet 11, 328–330 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1038/ng1195-328

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