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Posted: 12/16/2005 5:53:35 AM EDT
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The tiny zebrafish has yielded a gene that determines human hair, skin and eye color, according to a report in the journal Science by researchers who started out studying cancer.

The scientists made the link when they looked up the gene responsible for the zebrafish's light pigmentation. The same gene, according to the scientists, is responsible for the light-colored pigmentation of many European persons.

The zebrafish is widely used for studying genetics because many of its genes are similar to humans'.

The change of a single amino acid in the gene plays a major role in the pigmentation process and explains why Europeans have lighter-colored skins than do Africans, said Keith Cheng, a cancer researcher from the of Pennsylvania State University, one of the authors of the report published in the Friday edition of Science.

Researchers believe the find could lead to ways to treat malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, as well as ways to modify skin color without the damage caused by tanning.

Working out the pigmentation details "is a great paradigm for seeking understanding of other complex diseases such as diabetes or heart disease," Cheng said.

"We cannot expect to use human genetics to understand complex diseases most effectively without first working out how fundamental characteristics, such as eye, hair, and skin color, are determined," said anthropologist Mark Shriver, one of the study co-authors.

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