SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — Humans, largely considered hairless mammals, appear to have evolved to lose their body hair by disabling the genes responsible for hair growth, according to researchers from the University of Utah and the University of Pittsburgh.
New research suggests that although humans have the genes for a full coat of hair, the genes responsible for hair growth have largely been disabled in humans, according to a press release. However, not all of the genes identified in the study have been linked to hair growth in the past.
“There are a good number of genes where we don’t know much about them,” University of Pittsburgh researcher Amanda Kowalczyk said. “We think they could have roles in hair growth and maintenance.”
In order to identify which genes are responsible, researchers analyzed 19,149 genes and 343,598 regulatory regions across dozens of mammals for genes that evolved faster than others. They discovered that many hairless species, such as elephants and dolphins, have mutations in many of the same genes, including some already known for building hair shafts and growing hair, according to the release.
“As animals are under evolutionary pressure to lose hair, the genes encoding hair become less important,” U of U researcher Nathan Clark says.
While the research attempts to answer the question of human hairlessness, researchers hope it can also lead to the development of new hair growth methods after balding, whether it is caused by age, chemotherapy or a disorder.
“We have taken the creative approach of using biological diversity to learn about our own genetics,” Clark said. “This is helping us to pinpoint regions of our genome that contribute to something important to us.”
The researchers are currently using the same method to identify genes responsible for other characteristics or conditions, such as cancer or an extended lifespan, the release states.