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Genes point to red-headed Neanderthals

Some Neanderthals, human relatives that disappeared more than 50,000 years ago, may have had red hair, according to a study of their genes.

A variant in DNA taken from Neanderthal bones acts like one associated with red hair and light skin in humans, researchers said in a study released Thursday by the journal Science.

The study provides another important link between humans and Neanderthals, who are believed to share a common ancestor. Research published this year suggested that Neanderthals had a version of a gene called FOXP2 that appears to be involved in speech.

"Our calculations suggest that at least 1 percent of Neanderthals had red hair," said Michael Hofreiter, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, who led the study. "They would have had lighter hair all over their bodies, like today's Irish redheaded people."

The proportion of humans with red hair is close, about 1 percent, making it the least common natural color. It is almost always linked to light skin, and experiments with the Neanderthal's MC1R gene variant suggest it behaves similarly to a human gene variant that cuts down on skin pigment.

Many scientists had predicted Neanderthals would have light skin and red hair because they evolved in Europe, a colder climate than Africa, and didn't need protection from the sun.

The variant in the MC1R gene in Neanderthals has a different sequence from the one that can give humans red hair, Hofreiter said. His group analyzed the gene's function by putting it into a cell and watching for changes in activity.

The cell with the MC1R gene variant made more of a chemical called cyclic AMP than cells without the variant. That suggests that the variant would cut the production of melanin, or pigment, more than other versions, Hofreiter said.

Hofreiter's technique for isolating single genes from Neanderthal DNA is vulnerable to flaws, said Stephan Schuster, an expert in ancient DNA at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Newer sequencers, such as those made by Roche Holding AG's 454 Life Sciences unit, can decipher multiple genes simultaneously, reducing the chance of errors.

"I would be careful in making an assumption on skin or hair color just from a mutation in a single gene," Schuster said. "There are 200 genes involved in skin and hair color."