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Boffins uncover ginger gene in neanderthal DNA

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The continuing analysis of samples of neanderthal DNA have revealed that some of them had ginger hair.

Researchers from the University of Barcelona identified a mutation on the gene MC1R that, in modern humans, causes hair to tend to the titian, and skin to tend to the pale. All humans carry a version of MC1R, but the redhead version is slightly different, the BBC reports.

The DNA was extracted from two sets of neanderthal remains, the researchers report in a paper for the journal Science. One sample came from a site at Monte Lessini in Italy, while a second was unearthed at El Sidron cave in northern Spain.

Lead author Carles Lalueza-Fox, assistant professor in genetics at the University of Barcelona said: "We found a variant of MC1R in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads."

It is only recently that scientists have developed techniques that have allowed them to probe the genetic makeup of our evolutionary cousins. Researchers hope that by learning more about how we differ from neanderthals and how we resemble them, we might be able to work out why they died out and we flourished.

Reconstructing sequences of DNA is still extremely difficult, especially from samples as old as the ones Dr. Lalueza-Fox and his team were working with.

"This was a bit like finding a needle in a genomic haystack," said Dr Lalueza-Fox. "I couldn't believe we found it the first time. I asked my friends to repeat the results. Eventually the variant was found in two separate Neanderthals in three different labs." ®

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