Human pigmentation variation: Evolution, genetic basis, and implications for public health


  • Esteban J. Parra

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    1. Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto at Mississauga, Mississauga, ON, Canada L5L 1C6
    • Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto at Mississauga, 3559 Mississauga Road North, Room 212 North Building, Mississauga, ON, Canada L5L 1C6
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Pigmentation, which is primarily determined by the amount, the type, and the distribution of melanin, shows a remarkable diversity in human populations, and in this sense, it is an atypical trait. Numerous genetic studies have indicated that the average proportion of genetic variation due to differences among major continental groups is just 10–15% of the total genetic variation. In contrast, skin pigmentation shows large differences among continental populations. The reasons for this discrepancy can be traced back primarily to the strong influence of natural selection, which has shaped the distribution of pigmentation according to a latitudinal gradient. Research during the last 5 years has substantially increased our understanding of the genes involved in normal pigmentation variation in human populations. At least six genes have been identified using genotype/phenotype association studies and/or direct functional assays, and there is evidence indicating that several additional genes may be playing a role in skin, hair, and iris pigmentation. The information that is emerging from recent studies points to a complex picture where positive selection has been acting at different genomic locations, and for some genes only in certain population groups. There are several reasons why elucidating the genetics and evolutionary history of pigmentation is important. 1) Pigmentation is a trait that should be used as an example of how misleading simplistic interpretations of human variation can be. It is erroneous to extrapolate the patterns of variation observed in superficial traits such as pigmentation to the rest of the genome. It is similarly misleading to suggest, based on the “average” genomic picture, that variation among human populations is irrelevant. The study of the genes underlying human pigmentation diversity brings to the forefront the mosaic nature of human genetic variation: our genome is composed of a myriad of segments with different patterns of variation and evolutionary histories. 2) Pigmentation can be very useful to understand the genetic architecture of complex traits. The pigmentation of unexposed areas of the skin (constitutive pigmentation) is relatively unaffected by environmental influences during an individual's lifetime when compared with other complex traits such as diabetes or blood pressure, and this provides a unique opportunity to study gene–gene interactions without the effect of environmental confounders. 3) Pigmentation is of relevance from a public health perspective, because of its critical role in photoprotection and vitamin D synthesis. Fair-skinned individuals are at higher risk of several types of skin cancer, particularly in regions with high UVR incidence, and dark-skinned individuals living in high latitude regions are at higher risk for diseases caused by deficient or insufficient vitamin D levels. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 50:85–105, 2007. © 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.