Irish scientist Eimear Kenny, who studied at Trinity College Dublin, has helped to solve a mystery that has surrounded the peoples of the Solomon Islands for decades – Why did they have blond hair, when they are dark skinned?
Now a genetic study has found that the islanders have a ‘homegrown’ gene that gives them blond hair – and it’s different from the one in Europeans.
In terms of genetic studies, the analysis was straightforward, said Kenny. The hard part came when the initial data had to be gathered around the islands. A lot of the Solomon Islands are underdeveloped and contain no roads, phones or electricity. The islands all seem to have their own languages too, making it one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world.
So data had to be gathered by going from village to village to collect DNA samples from a broad spectrum of the population.
They asked the villagers to spit into small tubes to provide saliva to be used for DNA extraction. In the span of a month they collected more than 1,000 samples.
Soon after, Kenny joined the lab and started the analysis, selecting 43 blond- and 42 dark-haired Solomon Islanders from the opposite 10 percent extremes of the hair pigmentation range. She used these in a genome-wide association study, a method to reveal differences in the frequency of genetic variants between two groups, that usually requires thousands of samples.
‘So the human characteristic of blond hair arose independently in equatorial Oceania. That’s quite unexpected and fascinating,’ Kenny said.