Genetic loci associated with skin pigmentation in African Americans and their effects on Vitamin D deficiency

Ken Batai, Zuxi Cui, Amit Arora, Ebony Shah-Williams, Wenndy Hernandez, Maria Ruden, Courtney M.P. Hollowell, Stanley E. Hooker, Madhavi Bathina, Adam B. Murphy, Carolina Bonilla, Rick A. Kittles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


A recent genome-wide association study (GWAS) in African descent populations identified novel loci associated with skin pigmentation. However, how genomic variations affect skin pigmentation and how these skin pigmentation gene variants affect serum 25(OH) vitamin D variation has not been explored in African Americans (AAs). In order to further understand genetic factors that affect human skin pigmentation and serum 25(OH)D variation, we performed a GWAS for skin pigmentation with 395 AAs and a replication study with 681 AAs. Then, we tested if the identified variants are associated with serum 25(OH) D concentrations in a subset of AAs (n = 591). Skin pigmentation, Melanin Index (M-Index), was measured using a narrow-band reflectometer. Multiple regression analysis was performed to identify variants associated with M-Index and to assess their role in serum 25(OH)D variation adjusting for population stratification and relevant confounding variables. A variant near the SLC24A5 gene (rs2675345) showed the strongest signal of association with M-Index (P = 4.0 x 10−30 in the pooled dataset). Variants in SLC24A5, SLC45A2 and OCA2 together account for a large proportion of skin pigmentation variance (11%). The effects of these variants on M-Index was modified by sex (P for interaction = 0.009). However, West African Ancestry (WAA) also accounts for a large proportion of M-Index variance (23%). M-Index also varies among AAs with high WAA and high Genetic Score calculated from top variants associated with M-Index, suggesting that other unknown genomic factors related to WAA are likely contributing to skin pigmentation variation. M-Index was not associated with serum 25(OH)D concentrations, but the Genetic Score was significantly associated with vitamin D deficiency (serum 25(OH)D levels less than 12 ng/mL) (OR, 1.30; 95% CI, 1.04-1.64). The findings support the hypothesis suggesting that skin pigmentation evolved responding to increased demand for subcutaneous vitamin D synthesis in high latitude environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1009319
JournalPLoS genetics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 18 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Cancer Research


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