Follicle Follies


I came back from vacation to some life changing news.

It seems that while I was away dedicated scientists working overtime on a very important genetic study revealed the “root” cause of gray hair! (Sorry.)

This is life changing because it means that if I go on vacation for a year or two, researchers may find a genetic cure for cancer.  

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I wonder if I can get a grant for that?

Silly me, I always thought that the underlying cause of gray hair was aging.  But several years ago cosmetologists with PhDs discovered that hair color was directly correlated with a substance called melanin, a pigment that also determines the color of our skin.  

The result?  A lot of melanin, dark hair.  A little melanin, blonde hair.  No melanin, gray hair.   

And by the way, melanin in hair disappears with age.  Silly me.

At the time this was a highly contested finding particularly among linguists because British researchers claimed that the absence of melanin caused the colour grey while American researchers argued that it led to the color gray.  

Hopefully this will be resolved the next time I go on vacation and geneticists find the gene for spelling.

In this earlier study researchers found a direct link between premature grayness and melanin-producing cells by bombarding mice with UV light, gamma radiation, and X Rays.  The mice that survived were noticeably grayer.

The conclusion? To avoid premature grayness, people should not see a dentist in summer between the hours of ten and two.

In yet another locks study, researchers determined that hair loss could actually be reversed by plucking hairs. In this case graduate students with magnifying glasses and tweezers individually plucked 200 hairs off the back of mice in specific patterns and were able to regenerate up to 1,300 hairs through hair follicle stimulation.

Where the study of hair is considered, I think the findings are pretty conclusive:  It sucks to be a mouse.

In the most recent surprising tress study, hair geneticists isolated a specific gene, memorably called IRF4, which is responsible for the regulation of melanin.  Thier study revealed that 30% of the graying process is directly controlled by this gene.  The other 70% of the graying process is caused by—get ready for it—aging, stress, and other factors.   

By other factors I assume they are referring to being X-rayed by a dentist in the summer.

What is most revealing about this study is that it did not involve mice.  Instead a genetic screening of over 6,000 Latin American men and women with European, Native American, and African heritage was matched to common, natural hair traits in the population sample.  

While comprehensive, the very distinct sample unfortunately does not allow us to draw any genetic conclusions about Donald Trump’s hair.  Or Bernie Sander’s hair either.

The ramifications of this study, along with others which have isolated genes controlling hair density, shape, and curliness are clear.  Someday, maybe not so far in the future, I may be able to make an appointment with a gene therapist and grow an Afro in the shape of the Eiffel Tower on my head in any color I want.

Or perhaps I will be able to manipulate male pattern baldness to sculpt a cropped hair logo of a football team on my head.  Or maybe I can get paid to brand one eyebrow as a gray Nike swoosh.  

The possibilities are endless.

This naturally has the cosmetic industry up in arms.  The idea that overpriced hair products and expensive beauticians might be permanently replaced by a trivial gene splice performed by some geek in a white lab coat is a scary thought.  And touting IFR4 mutation for a touch of gray is not exactly a marketer’s dream.

Let me be honest.  I have some gray hair.  Ok, a lot of gray hair.  I started to show signs of gray early.  in my 30s.  So did my mom.  As we all know, hair patterns and color are genetic.  And I gleefully hold this over my kids heads, so to speak, when they turn on me.  

I mean, what can be scarier to kids than seeing a very real possibility of their future hair everyday?  For their sake, at least they have some control over their personalities.

But I have always dealt with my hair the way it is naturally.  I have never tried to color it, enhance it, shape it, preserve it, or otherwise tamper with it in anyway.  Heck, sometimes I don’t even comb my hair.  That’s what baseball caps are for.  

So while I think that understanding why our hair is what it is constitutes an interesting area of genetic study, I would rather researchers concentrate on something a little more impactful to modern medicine.

And I will gladly go on vacation again to make it happen.  


The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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