There are a lot of redheads on my mum’s side of the family, and although I have dodged the ginger bullet and have been blessed with mousey brown hair, I was unfortunately hit by some stray shrapnel; and thus have pale skin, freckles, and a ginger beard. I have recently had myself genotyped (a process of determining differences in the genetic make-up using biological assays) to asses the damages of this stray shrapnel and the results came back as I had feared. I have a mutation in one of my melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) genes that codes for a protein called - you guessed it - the melanocortin-1 receptor. This receptor is located on the surface of melanocytes which are specialised cells that produce pigments called melanins that, amongst other things, give things like skin, hair, and eyes their colour. A mutation in this gene can prevent the receptor from working, preventing melanocytes from producing eumelanin (black/brown pigment) and instead favouring the production of pheomelanin (red pigment) resulting in ginger hair.
Although I only have the one recessive mutation (SNP i2002507 position 89986546) and therefore have luscious thick mousey brown hair, my friends immediately began to call me ginger when they discovered my dark secret. Instead of getting on the defensive, I decided to embrace and accept my mutated genes, and was horrified to discover that I am a member of a dying population. According to a recent article published in the tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror, gingers could become extinct as a result of climate change - so says “experts”.
The article named ‘Gingers could become extinct due to climate change, experts warn’ reports that scientists think gingers evolved in response to the cloudy skies of the British Isles in order for them to synthesis the required amounts vitamin D. It then goes on to say that changes in climate will “affect the gene” resulting in the extinction of gingers “within centuries”. To understand why this article is utter bollocks, we first must talk about how gingers came about and the misconceptions of evolution.
Although ginger people are associated with having pale skin (which would be an advantage in places like the British Isles allowing them to synthesise vitamin D in low light conditions) it’s not a requisite. Your genetics are far more complicated than a single simple mutation accounting for multiple traits such as ginger hair, light skin, freckles, etc. Instead you have a large number of different MC1R mutations (of which I have one), and other genes affecting your overall hair and skin colour. Because of this, you can have people with ginger hair who are quite tanned and people with jet black hair with ivory skin who, because of their light skin, would have a higher risk of skin cancer. This high risk of cancer is only associated with skin colour and not hair, therefore a more accurate (and more controversial) title to this article would be ‘Whites could become extinct due to climate change, experts warn’.
There is no evolutionary advantage to being ginger but equally there is no disadvantage. A common misconception is that everything we see today in living organisms is a result of evolution and that all traits are selected because they give the recipients an advantage. The truth is evolution can be quite sloppy and if there is no great disadvantage to having a certain trait, then there will be no evolutionary pressure to remove it from the gene pool. One reason why so many people carry the ginger genes when there is no advantage is because of sexual selection. Some people find gingers extremely attractive and their colouring helps distinguish them from the crowd, and as a result they have multiplied.
So by this point you are probably wondering who is this ginger “expert” that the Daily Mirror contacted. His name is Dr Alistar Moffat or to give him his correct title Mr Alistar Moffat – a Medieval History graduate and managing director of genotyping service company ScotlandsDNA. What’s interesting about this company is that they offer a service that specifically looks to see if you carry any of the MC1R mutations that could result in ginger hair. This is likely the whole reason this article exists to promote Alistar’s company whilst at the same time encouraging people to get themselves tested to see if they carry this soon-to-be-extinct gene. This blurs the lines between journalism and advertising, and is why we need scientists to write science-based articles for the media.