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redhead-770x500British medical researchers have found a gene variant associated with skin cancer. Lead researcher Dr. David Adams of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire has identified the MC1R variant as affecting the type of melanin skin pigment produced with the result that the person’s skin is more vulnerable to damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. People having this variant produce less eumelanin and more pheomelanin than others. The eumelanin protects skin from damage by UV rays but pheomelanin doesn’t. People with mostly pheomelanin tend to have red or blond hair, freckles and fair skin that tans poorly (read burns easily in my case).

Researchers found that even people with only one copy of the gene variant have more tumor mutations than those without any copies of it. On average people with MC1R gene variant have 42% more sun-associated mutations in tumors.

What all this means is that if you have this gene variant you are much more likely to have melanoma from exposure to the sun’s rays. Who are these vulnerable people? Red-haired people often have two copies of the gene variant burn easily and can get melanoma more easily than non-gingers.

The results of this study are more important to Brits than most people because 6% of the UK population are redheads compared to from 1% to 2% worldwide. It may be even more important to the Irish of whom 10% are estimated to have red hair.

It’s no accident that the British Isles have such a concentration of red-haired people according to the 2012 ScotlandsDNAproject which found that Celts’ flaming red hair is a reaction to gloomy weather. Red hair and pale skin are a genetic adaptation that allows the body to absorb more vitamin D on rare sunny days.

Another way of thinking about it is that red hair, freckles and personality traits that go along with them offset the cool, dank and dreary weather of England, Scotland and Ireland.