Study says gene determines European, African skin tones

January 3, 2006

State College, Pa. -- Researchers at Pennsylvania State University say they have discovered a gene that is responsible for Europeans' pale skin tones and the dark skin tones of Africans.

State College, Pa. -- Researchers at Pennsylvania State University say they have discovered a gene that is responsible for Europeans’ pale skin tones and the dark skin tones of Africans.

Writing in a recent issue of Science, the researchers report that the gene exists in two versions, one of which is found in 99 percent of Europeans, the other in 93 to 100 percent of Africans. The report says the new gene falls into the same category as Duffy null allele, a version of a gene that prevents malaria and is found almost exclusively in the sub-Saharan African race.

According to the Penn State research, the new gene was first identified in a mutant zebra fish, a small striped fish common in aquariums. The mutant fish are called golden zebra fish because their stripes, black in non-mutant zebra fish, are paler and their bodies more yellow than the non-mutant variety. The Penn State researchers showed that the golden version of the fish gene altered production of melanosomes, the tiny black particles of pigments that give skin its color.

The researchers then found that in the human form of this gene, the version common in Africans allowed larger melanosomes, which tend to clump together, whereas the version common in Europeans produced smaller, dispersed melanosomes.

The researchers say Asians have the same version of the gene as Africans, which likely means Asians acquired their light skin through the action of some other gene that affects skin color.

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