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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Aquarium fish and human skin color

Zebrafish, tiny aquarium fish with stripes on their sides, have helped scientists explain in terms of genetic makeup the variety of colors that human skin comes in.

The scientists discovered that a variation in a certain "gene" causes some zebrafish to have an overall golden color and lighter stripes than your average zebrafish.

Genes are segments of DNA that carry specific genetic information. Genes can be passed from parents to their offspring.

Humans have a gene that is very similar to the zebrafish "golden" gene. The researchers actually inserted the human version of the gene into golden-colored zebrafish and found that the human gene returned golden zebrafish cells back to the traditional zebrafish color.

Next, the researchers consulted an online database of human genetic variation called the "HapMap." They found that people with European ancestors carry a slightly different version of the "golden" gene than people with African and East Asian ancestors.

While this gene is not the only skin-color gene and doesn't act alone, it appears to play a major role in the skin color of Europeans, according to Science author Keith Cheng from The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania and his colleagues.

Certain versions of this "golden" gene may also be necessary for blue eyes and light hair color in humans.

This study appears in the 16 December, 2005 issue of the journal Science.