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Blond hair evolved more than once – and why it matters

In a story online today, I describe how a team led by Stanford's Carlos Bustamante, PhD, and Sean Myles, PhD, discovered that the gene for blond hair arose independently in the South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands. The researchers identified the islanders' "blond" gene and discovered it's not the same gene that causes blond hair in Europeans.

Reporting the story was so much fun. I learned from Myles, who spent a month there gathering the data, how important it is to get the village chief on board when doing genetic research in the Solomon Islands, that Solomon Islanders' saliva (which he collected for the study) is often bright red from chewing betel nut, and that on one of the islands (with an active volcano) you can cook by simply burying the food in the hot ground for a while. "The beaches are pristine, water super blue. You can hear the fish jumping in the water. It's what a lot of people would think of as paradise," he told me. Wow, what a trip.

The genetic finding, published in the May 4 issue of  Science, has a certain "wow" appeal too, and the researchers say there's a serious message that comes along with it. As Bustamante told me, the finding underscores the importance of genetic studies on isolated populations like the Solomon Islanders:

If we’re going to be designing the next generation of medical treatments using genetic information and we don’t have a really broad spectrum of populations included, you could disproportionately benefit some populations and harm others.

Myles, now an assistant professor at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, expands on this on his lab's website:

Our result is therefore a call for action. We must take steps now to ensure that the benefits of current genomics research extend beyond privileged populations and provide an increase in well-being for people everywhere. Humanity’s natural genetic diversity is vast and fascinating – we should be measuring and assessing it all! The same applies for genomics research in agriculture. A continued focus on a small number of elite individuals in plant and animal breeding is myopic and dangerous. An immense amount of existing genetic diversity that is essential to our future well-being is being ignored. Whether it’s us or our food that we research, our aim is to cultivate an appreciation for natural genetic diversity. Our future depends on it.

Photo of a child from the Solomon Islands by Sean Myles

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