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Combing Through Genes

June 16, 2004

Everyone has by now no doubt noticed that the hair on garage mice sometimes grows in unusual whirling patterns. No? You missed that while sweeping the departed pest into a plastic bag? Well, even without a compelling public demand to understand the arcane phenomenon of unkempt mouse hairs, some medical researchers have figured out why this is. Turns out the research may well explain those annoying people in every family who always seem to have perfect hairdos. Always. The rest of us are tempted to return to bed rather than face a mirror.

The good-hair and bad-hair luck has nothing to do with having a friend at Supercuts. Of course, in these days of technological advances, it's directly traceable to a gene. Aptly named the Frizzled 6 gene, this tiny biological circuit board apparently determines the hair patterns on living bodies, coordinates them so they all flow together nice and smoothly. Or not. See how helpful diligent science can be? The absence of this gene creates permanent hair-follicle chaos, with hairs allowed to point every which way like disunited nations, only furry. This explains why no amount of wetting, spraying, combing and hard brushing will make that patch of rebellious hairs lie down as ordered.

Researchers actually discovered this some time ago while studying fruit flies, which do not shave their legs. Imagine the lunch this research was born at, and the biological forensics involved in deciphering it. Mice and humans both like cheese and are surprisingly similar, genetically speaking. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute suspected that the same hair-arranging gene appears or disappears in people, controlling human hair patterns similarly. This means that typically unnoted hair patterns could be, uh, inhairited.

Each of the two species has 10 Frizzled 6 genes. Mice have standard hair patterns on their paws and tummies, which you also may have missed until today. But when scientists removed the Frizzled 6 gene from these little guys, the mouse hair patterns went all, well, squirrelly, sentencing the tiny rodents to bad-hair lives. A missing Frizzled 6 in people could indicate, for instance, lifetime cowlicks and stubborn hair whorls on the side or that back corner of your head.

Isn't science fascinating? Writing about such things on this June day could also indicate that summer is officially coming soon.

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