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From gray hair to the evolution of human brains

In between meetings, events, science workshops, and getting work done in the lab, Helix employees love finding a few minutes here and there to read. (A, C, G, and T might be our four favorite letters, but we actually like all of them.) Each month, we’ll be highlighting articles and books that catch our attention.
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April showers bring May discoveries. If that’s not the classic saying, you wouldn’t know it looking at the science world! Several exciting articles were published this month with the potential to have wide ranging impacts for genetics and beyond.

“A direct link between MITF, innate immunity, and hair graying”
PLOS Biology
Whether you’ve got red hair, brown hair, golden hair, or anything in between, odds are good that you will eventually see some gray. But why do we go gray? Researchers have been studying this phenomenon, and this month a new finding was announced: Scientists at NIH have found a genetic link between the innate immune response and pigment production. Their findings may go beyond aesthetics, too, connecting pigmentation with the immune system. This may have an impact on our understanding of diseases like Vitiligo—a condition affecting 0.5-1% of people around the world.

“Genome-Wide Mutant Screen in Bacteria Helps Annotate Thousands of Genes With Unknown Function”
It can be difficult to experimentally determine how a specific sequence in your DNA influences your traits—if it does at all. Because of this, we still don’t know what many of the genes in the human body do. This is true for many organisms whose genome has been sequenced. This month, a paper published in Nature identified potential functions for nearly 12,000 different genes in bacterial DNA. While the research was done in bacteria, the methodology used may one day help us methodically work through the human genome and could bring us closer to a complete understanding of human genetics.

“Human-Specific NOTCH2NL Genes Affect Notch Signaling and Cortical Neurogenesis”
Ask a person what makes them different from a fish, lizard, or plant and they’ll likely point to their brain. Humans have evolved a large and complex brain, though we don’t fully know why. This month, two papers from independent research teams identified a location in the genome where a gene—NOTCH2NL—appears to play a role in growth of the brain cortex. Evidence suggests that this gene was duplicated millions of years ago and that it may have driven the rapid evolution of brain size in hominins (including Neanderthals and Denisovans).

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