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The Sunburn Gene


By Bryan Chan

November 22, 1995

You've probably all heard about the genes that cause cancer and other diseases and if you haven't heard about those genes you've probably heard about the ones popularized by Levi Strauss. But now scientists in England have just found the gene that causes sunburn. As a bonus, this gene also tends to give people red hair.

How does this gene work? Apparently this gene plays a key role in the body's production of pigment called melanin which is found in hair and skin. Melanin comes in a brown-black form that protects against sunburn by allowing suntanning, and a yellow-red form that may contribute to sunburn.

The yellow-red form is most often found in the hair and skin of people with red hair. In a study of 75 people the scientists found that the more sunburn-prone a person's skin, the more likely they were to have a variant version of the gene that preferentially produces the yellow-red melanin. And variants were much more common in people with light red or deep red hair than in blonds, brunettes or those with black hair.

Now you don't need a molecular geneticist to tell you that you're a red-head, but if you do sunburn easily you should go out and get some Aligator Skin 50 SPF sunblock because overexposure to the sun's harmful UV rays can induce DNA mutations in skin cells and that spells C A N C E R.

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