In the study of Icelanders, researchers uncovered an intricate pathway involving the interspersed DNA sequence, or non-coding region, of a gene that is among a few dozen associated with human pigmentation traits.

It is more common to find people with ancestors from geographic locations farther from the equator, such as Iceland, who have less pigment in their skin, hair and eyes.

The researchers, including scientists from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), analysed data from a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of 2,230 Icelanders.

A GWAS compares hundreds of thousands of common differences across individuals' DNA to see if any of those variants are associated with a known trait.

"This study explains a complex molecular pathway that may also contribute insights into skin diseases, such as melanoma, which is caused by the interaction of genetic susceptibility with environmental factors," said NHGRI Scientific Director Dan Kastner.

Researchers focused on the interferon regulatory factor 4 (IRF4) gene, previously associated with immunity. IRF4 makes a protein that spurs production of interferons, proteins that fight off viruses or harmful bacteria.

The researchers noted from genomic databases that the IRF4 gene is expressed at high levels only in lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell important in the immune system, and in melanocytes, specialized skin cells that make the pigment melanin. The new study established an association between the IRF4 gene and the pigmentation trait.

"Genome-wide association studies are uncovering many genomic variants that are associated with human traits and most of them are found in non-protein-coding regions of the genome," said William Pavan, co-author and senior investigator, Genetic Disease Research Branch, NHGRI.

The Icelandic GWAS yielded millions of variants among individuals in the study. The researchers narrowed their study to 16,280 variants located in the region around the IRF4 gene.

They used an automated fine-mapping process to explore the set of variants in IRF4 in 95,085 people from Iceland. The data revealed that a variant in a non-coding, enhancer region that regulates the IRF4 gene is associated with the combined trait of sunlight sensitivity, brown hair, blue eyes and freckles.

The study was reported in the journal Cell.


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