Eye on DNA Interview: Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh of RedTracer DNA Test for the Red Hair Gene, MC1R

Eye on DNA Interview: Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh of RedTracer DNA Test for the Red Hair Gene, MC1R

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 26, 2009 in DNA in General

redhead In a world where parents can test their children for genetically-endowed academic and sports ability, no DNA test should come as a surprise. One of the most recent genetic testing product to be introduced is the RedTracer DNA Test at MyRedHairGene.com. For $119, an individual sample of DNAcan be tested for variants of the red hair gene, MC1R. For an analysis of two samples, the price is $214. I recently had the chance to interview Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh about RedTracer DNA.

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Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh: First off I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about our new genetic test. We hope that this kind of fun genetics test will help people learn a little bit about themselves and get them excited about their genetics and genetics in general.

Hsien: What is the company’s motivation for offering the RedTracer DNA test?

Tzung-Fu: We were first introduced to MC1R gene variants and their association with red hair color by Dr. Barry Starr from the Tech Museum of Innovation at San Jose a few years ago. Back then, Dr. Starr was interested in a possible public project for looking at the diversity of MC1R gene variations among museum visitors in a classroom setting as a mean to bring awareness of genetic diversity to grade schoolers. The MC1R gene is a perfect marker because of its unusually high diversity and association with hair and skin colors. Even though the project did not materialize due to some logistical and budgetary issues, we kept the project going by analyzing several carrier families as well as performing occasional requests for such services. 

Many parents became aware of and got interested in red hair biology after having a redheaded baby. Similarly, Dr. Starr’s interest in the MC1R gene came about because one of his three children is a redhead. Our testing analyses confirmed that both he and his wife carry a red hair causing variant of the MC1R gene. Through this collaboration, we started getting requests from people who wanted to know if they inherited the red hair trait, what might be the chance of having a redheaded baby, etc. So we’ve known for awhile that some people were looking for such a service. We have the skill and resources to provide this service and we hope that by offering this test, we can draw people’s interests to general genetics.

Hsien: What are some medical implications for knowing whether a person is a carrier of the MC1R gene?

Tzung-Fu: You bring up a great point with this question. We all know about the dangers of skin cancer for people with fair skin that burns but doesn’t tan. What a lot of people don’t know is that being a carrier of a red variant of the MC1R gene can increase the risk for skin cancer even if the carrier has darker skin. One theory is that the increased risk happens because free radicals are made when sunlight hits the pigment responsible for red hair (phomelanin). These free radicals go on to damage DNA and ultimately cause cancer.

Hsien: In some parts of the world, redheads are discriminated against. Do you think some people might misuse the RedTracer DNA test? 

Tzung-Fu: People with red hair are discriminated in some places although at least here in the U.S., this discrimination has been disappearing rapidly. I am not sure how people might misuse this test against someone. No discrimination that I know of is state-based so it is unlikely to be used by governments as a skin color test might have been used in apartheid era in South Africa.

In fact, there are groups who are worried about the eventual extinction of redheads from the world. The risk is overblown as there will probably always be redheads in the world but a test like this might help carriers find each other to have red haired kids.

Hsien: Can you tell us more about the global database the company plans to establish?

Tzung-Fu: There are over 30 different MC1R variants reported so far. Only a handful of them are associated with red hair color. Among the rest, several of them have emerged as possibly ethnic or geographic specific. For example, Arg163Gln variant is present in 70% the East and Southeast Asian populations, but only ~4% in populations among Europeans. We hope a global database will help us accumulate enough data to identify ethnic specific variants and other new red hair causing variants.

We want to make this database freely available to people and other researchers and hope to establish an educational website around it. That way people can use their results and compare them to other people’s and maybe learn a bit about genetics.

Of course, everything will be anonymous and we will destroy DNA samples we get once the tests are completed.

Hsien: How does RedTracer DNA test compare with SNP analysis from other direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies?

Tzung-Fu: Most of the other DTC genetic tests currently available on the market look at a very small number of known SNPs, generally one or two. Other companies that offer whole genome scan analyses (e.g., 23andme, etc) rely on assaying SNPs featured on microchips. Often these chips were designed based on known SNPs listed in public domain (HapMap database, for example). The RedTracer DNA test will give customers 954 base pairs of the coding region of their MC1R gene. Our test will provide definitive information about carrier status and not simply the odds of being a carrier based on a certain SNP. Plus, who wouldn’t want to know what all the 1900 of their MC1R DNA letters look like?

To learn more about the RedTracer DNA Test, visit their website at MyRedHairGene.com.

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On a related note, AskMen.com recently shared this tidbit about red hair:

Redheads may be aliens

There’s a conspiracy theory that redheads are alien-human hybrids. Think about it: Why did several kings and queens of Europe have red hair even though, percentage-wise, redheads are fairly rare? Why do so many Southies have red hair and speak a different language than other Boston locals?

It sounds crazy, but carrottops do have biological differences other than appearance. Redheaded women bleed longer, which is why doctors make special preparations for them in childbirth. They also have the smallest hair count on their heads, about 90,000 as opposed to 140,000 on people with blond and brown hair. That’s why Kick a Ginger Day began, just to keep these possible aliens on their toes.

via Neatorama

Photo credit: i,max on Flickr

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