Researchers Discover Skin Color Gene Scientists say they've found a gene that seems to partially control human skin color. They say a small change in this gene could explain why people of European descent have a different skin color from people of African or Asian descent. But some worry the new discovery could be misused for racial profiling.
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Researchers Discover Skin Color Gene

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Researchers Discover Skin Color Gene

Researchers Discover Skin Color Gene

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

One more item from the world of science now. Researchers say they've found a gene that seems to partially control human skin color. They say that a small change in this gene could explain why people of European descent are a different color than people of African or Asian descent. As NPR's Nell Boyce reports, some experts worry this new discovery could be misused for things like racial profiling.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Keith Cheng says he was drawn into the emotionally charged world of race and genetics because of a fish.

Mr. KEITH CHENG (Penn State College of Medicine): Of course, I had trepidations, but my curiosity overwhelmed my trepidation. And this amazing fact that this fish that was found in a pet store might inform us about skin color in a major way was just too much to resist.

BOYCE: Cheng is a scientist at Penn State College of Medicine. He studies cancer genes with the help of small tropical fish called zebrafish. Usually, they're white with black stripes, but there's also a golden mutant; it has much fainter stripes. Over the last few years, Cheng's group discovered that the color of the zebrafish depends on which version of a particular gene it has. Then they wondered: Could a similar gene explain skin color in people?

Mr. CHENG: How can you not be curious about why an Asian might look different from a Caucasian or look different from an African person? `That's very interesting. You look different. Why is that?'

BOYCE: Cheng may have discovered part of the answer. In the journal Science, his team reports that people do have a gene similar to the one in zebrafish. In fact, there are two common variants. One showed up in almost all DNA samples taken from small groups of people living in Africa and Asia. The other version appeared in almost all of the people they tested who had European ancestry. The researchers also directly measured skin pigmentation in people of so-called mixed ancestry. They found that on average, people with the European version of the gene had lighter skin.

Cheng says this information could be useful for studying human evolution or skin cancer, but police officers are likely to be interested, too. Already some officials are testing DNA left at crime scenes to get clues about what the culprit might look like. Tony Frudakis runs DNA Print Genomics, a company that uses gene markers associated with geographic ancestry to give police a general sense of whether someone might look more black or white. In one case, he says, such testing helped track down a serial killer in Louisiana.

Mr. TONY FRUDAKIS (DNA Print Genomics): They had been targeting a Caucasian individual based on faulty eyewitness testimony, and we showed that the samples found at the crime scene corresponded to someone with predominantly sub-Saharan African ancestry. And so this sort of changed the profile of who they were looking for.

BOYCE: Frudakis says this kind of profiling could be improved by testing genes for specific features, like eye color or height. He thinks this new gene for skin color is a step towards that goal.

Other scientists agree that genes do control a lot of a person's appearance; just think of identical twins. But they emphasize that this new discovery about skin color is a long way from being able to use gene tests to reconstruct exactly what a person looks like.

Dr. FRANCIS COLLINS (Director, National Human Genome Research Institute): This is not `the' gene for skin color.

BOYCE: Francis Collins directs the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Dr. COLLINS: This is most definitely--and let me emphasize this even more--not the gene for race, which is something I've heard a couple people already say when they heard about this result. There is no gene for race.

BOYCE: Collins says race involves all kinds of cues, things like your neighborhood, your family traditions, your clothes. That's why Pilar Ossorio questions whether these genetic tests will really be useful for profiling crime suspects. She's a scientist and lawyer at the University of Wisconsin. She says consider someone with a lot of genes for Native American ancestry and medium-brown skin. What if this person speaks Spanish and lives in a Hispanic community?

Ms. PILAR OSSORIO (University of Wisconsin): That person could be living in the world as a Hispanic person, and the police would probably not connect that Hispanic person with the profile that they got. We use a lot of things to understand what race somebody is, what ethnicity they are, where they fit in our social world.

BOYCE: And Ossorio says for most of those things, there is no genetic test. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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