The results of three studies suggest that gene screening may help detect persons who are most likely to contract skin cancer after sitting in the sun.
While studying patients with melanoma and other types of skin cancer, researchers in Iceland and Australia identified a gene linked to a person's skin tone as well as his/her chances of getting skin cancer.
Kari Stefannson, CEO of DeCODE Genetics at Reykjavik, said that a mutation in a gene called ASIP doubles the risk of melanoma in sun-starved Icelanders.
His team has also observed that having mutations in a gene called MC1R, which cause red hair and freckles, significantly increase a person's likelihood of getting melanoma.
The researchers also studied the genomes of tens of thousands of blondes, redheads, cancer patients and healthy people from Iceland, Sweden and Eastern Europe with a view to determining additional genes that affect skin colour and cancer.
They observed that two mutations in the gene ASIP were tightly linked to red hair, freckles and sun sensitivity.
They also discovered that the same mutations doubled a person's likelihood of developing melanoma.
Although the MC1R gene is strongly linked to fair skin and cancer in Caucasians, the research team observed that it had little effect above the Arctic.
"In Iceland you can avoid sunlight because it is so rare," New Scientist quoted Stefannson as saying.
Stuart MacGregor, a geneticist at Brisbane-based Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia, agreed: "It doesn't look like it's just pigmentation."
Leading an independent team, MacGregor discovered the same link to ASIP among melanoma patients from Queensland.
He strongly believes that early detection of people at risk of melanoma on the basis of their genes and complexions may help save lives.
"Looking at just skin colour will only take you so far," he said.
Jonathan Rees, a skin cancer expert at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland said that any gene affecting complexion was almost certain to play a role in skin cancer, as well.
"It is an open question whether genes will provide better markers of risk than good measures of skin colour. I am a sceptic," he said.
A research article on the new findings has been published in the journal Nature Genetics.