Space & Innovation

This Gene Makes You Look Old

Variations in a single gene appear to play a major role in how old we look.

We all know people who look much younger than their years and then there are others who definitely look their age - and sometimes then some.

Whether you fall into one of those groups may depend, at least in part, on a genetic lottery.

Scientists in the Netherlands have identified a single gene that appears to play a major role in how old we look.

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The gene, MC1R, is already known for producing red hair and pale skin. It turns out variations in this gene can cause a person to look either much younger than their age - or up to two years older.

"For the first time, a gene has been found that explains in part why some people look older and others younger for their age," Manfred Kayser of Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam in the Netherlands, said in a press release.

The human genome consists of some 25,000 genes, which are made up of approximately 3 billion letters (base pairs) of DNA. Small deviations in the base pairs occur about once in every 1,000 letters of DNA code, generating small genetic variants.

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Kayser and his colleague David Gunn at the UK- and Netherlands-based company Unilever searched the genomes of more than 2,600 elderly Dutch Europeans from the Rotterdam Study for DNA variants associated with aging features detected on digital images of faces.

They found one gene, MC1R, had a stronger association than any other gene with perceived aging features, such as wrinkling.

This makes sense since the gene, in addition to playing a role in skin and hair color, is also associated with inflammation and DNA damage repair - which can both play a role in age appearance.

Of course, genes aren't the only thing that contribute to our aging faces. Our environment and lifestyles (i.e. whether we work outside, how often we use sunscreen, etc.) are significant factors as well. But the researchers hope the genetic line of investigation into aging can yield some insight into the process of aging in general.

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As David Gunn said in a press release, "We believe that using the perception of age is one of the best and most exciting ways to measure how ‘well' people are aging."

The research was published today in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.

The impact of aging on human facial appearance as illustrated by the average face of 12 women aged 47 years (left side) and 12 women aged 70 years (right side).