Fish gene plays role in human skin colour.

fishyA striped aquarium fish has helped scientists find a gene that plays a role in determining human hair, skin and eye colour.

Researchers commonly use zebrafish, a small, colourful fish that reproduces rapidly, as a laboratory model for human health research.

Geneticist Keith Cheng of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues were originally using African zebrafish to look for genes involved in cancer.

Cheng said researchers can't use human genetics to explain complex diseases such as heart disease or diabetes without first working out fundamental characteristics such as how skin colour is determined.

The findings could help find ways to treat malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

A gene called SLC24A5 appeared to make zebrafish sport lighter, "golden" stripes, instead of darker colouring. Closely related genes are found in all vertebrates, the researchers said.

People of European descent have fewer, smaller and lighter pigment granules called melanosomes, compared to people of West African ancestry. East Asians fall in between.

The difference led researchers to look for a genetic mechanism behind variation in human skin colour.

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