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Eye Color

Why do I have blue-eyes? I am an African-American. I am 37 now, it's always been a shock to many. I was born with natural blue-eyes. I am not light skinned at all; I am a brown skinned woman. People are amazed that they are blue just like how white people eyes are. I have a 15 year old and he has one total blue-eye, (the right eye) and the other eye is half brown and blue, weird right?

I went to the Georgia eye Institute in Savannah. they took lots of pictures of my eyes and recorded in their book. How in the world did my eyes get this color? And do you think that I can do an eye commercial or something of the sort?

-An undergraduate student from Georgia

October 8, 2004

African Americans with blue eyes are not unheard of but they are pretty rare. There are lots of ways for this to happen. Three possible ways you might have ended up with blue eyes are:

  1. Caucasian relatives in your past
  2. A rare disease that makes a person an albino only in their eyes
  3. A new mutation
  4. Waardenburg syndrome (A common way to end up with two different colored eyes.)

Let's get rid of one of the reasons pretty quickly. You probably don't have a form of albinism called ocular albinism (OA).

Albinism causes a person to be an albino. Albinism comes about when your body fails to make melanin, the pigment that gives skin, hair, and eyes color. In some forms of albinism, only the eyes are affected.

There are a number of reasons why you probably don't have OA. People with OA tend to have very poor eyesight, something you didn't mention in your description. Also, they probably would have tested you for this and told you about it at the Georgia Eye Institute.

The final reason is that you are a woman. Like colorblindness or hemophilia, OA happens mostly in men (see the OA link below for more details on why this is). If not OA, then what about the other possibilities?

It is possible that there are white relatives on both your mother's and your father's side of the family. You need to have Caucasian relatives on both sides as will hopefully become clear later. It can sometimes take many generations for a trait like blue eyes or straight hair to pop up in the family tree again.

The reason it can take a few generations to see something like blue eyes or red hair is that these are both recessive genes. To help understand how this works, let's give an example. Our example simplifies eye color too much (see the reference below for more details on how eye color might really work), but it'll make the same point as a complex example would.

Remember that for most genes, you have two copies of each gene that you inherited from your mother and your father. The brown version of the eye color gene (B) is dominant over the recessive blue version (b). Dominant means that if either of your genes is the B version, then you will have brown eyes -- blue is recessive to brown's dominance. Genetically speaking, people with brown eyes can either be BB or Bb; people with blue eyes only bb.

How could two brown-eyed people have a blue-eyed baby? The most likely way is if both were carriers for blue eyes (Bb). Each parent would contribute a b version of the gene so that the child would be bb and have blue eyes. If a single gene were involved, the chances for a blue-eyed child would be 1 in 4.

One of the ways blue eyes can stay "hidden" for a long time is if there are always marriages between Bb (brown eyed carriers of blue eyes) and BB folks. You can only get brown eyes from this mix -- the BB parent can only contribute the dominant B gene.

The situation is actually even more complicated making it even harder to get blue eyes. There are at least two and probably more eye color genes. All your copies have to be the blue kind to get blue eyes. This makes blue eyes rarer still.

What if there are no whites in your background? Another possibility is that a key eye color gene was mutated or changed in you so that you now have blue eyes. These sorts of mutations are rare but it is where all the wonderful variety of people you see around you originally came from. You may be a genetic pioneer!