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DNA to Neandertals: Lighten up

Some Neandertals possessed a pigmentation gene in an inactivated form that would have produced pale skin and possibly even red hair, a new study indicates.

A team led by Carles Lalueza-Fox of the University of Barcelona analyzed DNA extracted from two Neandertal fossils, one from Italy and the other from Spain. The researchers scrutinized the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) gene, variants of which can yield light skin and red hair, especially in people of European descent.

The two Neandertals possessed the same, previously unknown version of the gene, the scientists report in an upcoming Science. Studies in cell cultures of the gene variant's protein showed depressed activity consistent with the development of pale skin and red hair, they say.

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