The gene, IRF4, was known to affect colour, but a new study is the first to pinpoint its unique role in the inexorable transition to shades of grey. Further research on precisely how IRF4 works could unlock techniques and treatments that slow or even halt that process, said the scientists.

"An initial avenue has to do with the role IRF4 could play in survival and maintenance of cells that make pigment," said Andres Ruiz-Linares, a professor at the University College London Genetics Institute who led the study.

Understanding how the gene interacts with other genes controling hair colour, for example, might yield cosmetic applications that block the fade to grey as hair grows in the follicle, he told AFP.

Setting aside unresolved ethical issues, one could even "wildly contemplate" the use of gene editing, a ultra-precise cut-and-paste process for altering DNA sequences, he said.

But the IRF4 variant that favours grey also produces fair hair, he cautioned, so tinking with the gene could also mean fewer blondes.

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