Unusual hair patterns are influenced by the aptly-named frizzled 6 gene, US researchers report. They found that mice lacking the gene have strange hair patterns, growing in swirls and tufts instead of all pointing in the same direction. The human version of the gene is probably responsible for cowlicks and whorls in people, say the team, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers, based at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, bred 'knock-out' mice, which completely lacked the frizzled 6 gene. The animals were all healthy, but had unusual whirling patterns in the hair on their head, chest and hind feet. The hair follicles themselves appeared normal, suggesting that the direction of hair growth is controlled by skin cells around the base of the hair, rather than the hair roots themselves.
Lead researcher Jeremy Nathans thinks that frizzled 6, along with ten related genes, is crucial for controlling patterns in the developing embryo - other frizzled genes affect the development of blood vessels in the eye, and the growth of nerves in the spinal cord. The frizzled genes were first identified by fruit fly researchers, who suggested the existence of a 'coordinate system' in the body, which tells tissue where it is, and in which direction it should point. 'Genes either build this coordinate system or read it out', said Nathans.
Nathans isn't keen on the term 'bad hair': 'These are the things that make life interesting', he said, adding 'we're all different'. He also pointed out a study published last year, which found a link between hair patterns and whether people are left or right-handed. This suggests that the same genetic factors could play a role in both features.