If you have gray hair, you’ll be encouraged by this news: scientists have found the gene responsible and think the discovery could someday lead to gene therapy that will banish grays forever.
The study that found the gray gene was performed by University College London, the Washington Post reported. Researchers examined the genetic data of 6,300 people across diverse ethnic backgrounds, including people with European, Native American, and African ancestry, BBC News added.
They also found the genes responsible for thick beards, curls, the unibrow, bushy eyebrows, color and shape, and balding. Researchers took note of participant’s traits, compared them to their genes, and were thus able to correspond certain features with specific genes.
“We analyzed a diverse melting pot of people, which hasn’t been done before on this scale,” said study author Kaustubh Adhikari.
This is the first time the genetic culprit of gray hair has been found.
The gray gene is called IRF4, which is already known to scientists as the gene that influences hair color by producing and storing melanin. For a bit of background, color comes from pigments produced by cells called melanocytes, which sit at the root of the hair on the follicle. When we get older, these cells stop doing their job, and therefore, hair loses its color and goes gray.
Melanin also gives color to our eyes and skin.
IRF4 doesn’t directly cause gray hair, but it’s correlated with early loss of color. However, the gene is likely not the only gene responsible for this distressing sign of aging. Many different genes are associated with colors, shapes, and thicknesses of innumerable variety, and scientists assume that in the future, others will be found and linked to going gray.
“The genes we have identified are unlikely to work in isolation to cause greying or straight hair, or thick eyebrows, but have a role to play along with many other factors yet to be identified,” Adhikari said
But for now, science can focus the blame game on this one gene.
Bushy eyebrows were also linked to a specific gene found called FOXL2; a gene called EDAR, which is associated with hairstyles in East Asia, keeps the locks straight and the beard sparse. Another gene, called PRSS53, was found to be one of several linked to curls.
For now, scientists don’t know how the genes they discovered influence the shade, style, and thickness of our luscious locks, expressive brows, and hipster beards, but they will. And when they do, science will give humankind the greatest gift ever: a cure for gray hair.
“Standard hair products are applied after your hair has been created, but targeting the hair as it is being produced could result in greater consistency of color, or longer-lasting effects,” Adhikari said.
Someday, gene manipulation, or a pill that boosts one enzyme and cuts off another, or some other high-tech treatment, will be found that makes going gray a thing of the past.
It could also help police nab criminals. Forensic scientists could theoretically use the genetic profiles of follicles found at crime scenes to nab perps. It’s even possible for facial profiles to one day be constructed completely from DNA left behind — making witnesses a thing of the past along with going gray.
Of course, grays aren’t just caused by genes, the Huffington Post pointed out. Smoking and vitamin deficiencies can also cause premature graying. People who find silver hairs years before they might want to check with their doctor to make sure thyroid or vitamin deficiencies aren’t the problems.
[Image via Rejja/Shutterstock]