for National Geographic News
Some Neandertals may have had red hair and pale skin, just as some modern humans do, according to a new genetic study.
The traits were likely more common in European Neandertals (often spelled Neanderthals), just as they are often seen in modern humans of European descent.
"I am quite sure this variant arose like the red hair variants in modern Europeans," said the study's lead author Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the University of Barcelona.
In the cases of both Neandertals and modern Europeans, he said, the gene mutation that caused fairer complexions spread only after the respective populations migrated from Africa.
Gene Keys Complexion Change
While studying Neandertal DNA samples, Lalueza-Fox's team found an unknown mutation in a key gene called MC1R.
Also present in modern humans, the gene regulates a protein that guides the production of melanin, which pigments hair and skin and protects from UV rays.
Variations in this gene's sequence limit melanin production in people with pale skin and red hair, although the particular mutation found by the researchers is not known to occur in modern humans.
The team tested the gene in living cells to see what effect the previously unknown variant would have had on the Neandertals who carried it. The test tube experiment showed that the variant suppressed the production of melanin, and thus likely gave the Neandertals who carried it red hair and pale skin.
Although it is not easy to find intact DNA from 230,000 to 30,000 years ago, Lalueza-Fox and his colleagues were able to study two separate samples unearthed in Italy and Spain.
The study was published today by the journal Science.
Skin Changes Similar in Humans, Neandertals
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