Scientists say missing gene causes `bad hair' in mice

May 25, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have identified the genetic control for hair patterning in mice. In humans, a similar gene might be responsible for the whorls and swirls that give some people effortless coiffures and others permanent cowlicks.

Dr. Jeremy Nathans, a professor at the medical school, with Nini Guo and Charles Hawkins, bred mice that lacked the gene, called Frizzled6. On a normal mouse, most hair follicles point in the same direction so the hairs are parallel although, as with many mammals, mice have swirls on the chest. But the mice without the gene looked anything but normal.

"When you eliminate Frizzled6, you get funny hair patterns," Nathans said. For example, the hair on the hind feet, normally aligned in the direction of the toes, now grew in swirls - clockwise on one foot, counterclockwise on the other. The findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Frizzled genes were first identified (and named) by fruit-fly researchers, whose work pointed to the existence of a coordinate system in the body that tells local tissue where it is and which direction it should point.

"Genes either build this coordinate system or read it out," Nathans said.

He and his team found that Frizzled6 works by expressing proteins in the skin and follicles.

"What we're seeing is if the skin is perfectly normal, then the hair is normal," Nathans said, and the follicles are at the proper angle.

"It's a very reasonable bet that human Frizzled6 is doing something related to hair orientation as it does in a mouse."

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