Genetic Mystery: Black British Couple Birth White, Blue-Eyed Baby
Britain’s tabloid press has gone gaga over a baby girl with white skin, blue eyes and a mop of blond curls who was born to black parents.
The best-selling Daily Mail and The Sun newspapers have labeled the child’s Caucasian complexion a mystery, saying genetics experts are “flummoxed” by the case. But is the birth of a white baby to a dark-skinned couple really as baffling as the papers claim?
Ben and Angela Ihegboro were certainly confused when nurses at Queen Mary Hospital in Sidcup, 10 miles southeast of London, last week presented them with their daughter Nmachi — whose name means “beauty of God” in the Nigerian couple’s homeland.
Father Ben told The Sun that when he first saw the porcelain-skinned infant he jokingly cried out, “What the flip? Is she mine?” But he never doubted whether he was Nmachi’s real dad. “Of course she is mine. My wife is true to me,” he said. “Even if she hadn’t been, the baby wouldn’t have looked like that!”
Albinism would have been the most obvious explanation for Nmachi’s pale looks. But, according to a hospital spokesperson, the obstetrician who delivered Nmachi told the family that doctors suspected the newborn wasn’t an albino because she didn’t have the pink eyes and white hair traditionally associated with the condition.
That initial hunch has led many to ponder why Nmachi was born white. Some experts have suggested that Ben and Angela might both be carrying light-skin gene variants, passed down from long-dead white ancestors. When Nmachi was conceived, she would have inherited both sets of pale-skin genes, giving her a white complexion.
“We are all of us genetic mixtures to some extent, and occasionally you’ll have a convergence of the pale versions of these genes in African-Americans and African-Caribbeans who have a mixed black and white ancestry,” Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, told the BBC.
However, both Ben and Angela, who moved to the U.K. five years ago, deny having white ancestors.
“My mum is a black Nigerian, although she has a bit fairer skin than mine,” said Ben, who has two other black children with Angela: son Chisom, 4, and daughter Dumebi, 2. “But we don’t know of any white ancestry.”
And while this sort of interracial mixing may have been common in long-established multiethnic communities like those found in the Caribbean, it’s unlikely to have occurred in a historically black country like Nigeria.
Those factors have led Sykes to argue that the little girl’s pale skin is caused by an unusual genetic mutation, which she could eventually pass on to her own children. But other experts believe there’s a much simpler explanation: Nmachi is an albino, and the first doctor who said she wasn’t had it wrong. The Queen Mary Hospital spokesperson says this is a possibility, noting that that doctor is an expert in obstetrics, not genetic disorders.
The confusion over Nmachi’s condition is likely because many people believe all albinos exhibit similar symptoms.
Professor Ian Jackson, an expert in melanocytes — cells that produce pigment — at the British Medical Research Council’s Human Genetics Unit, points out that there are four types of albinism, all of which allow different levels of coloring to develop in the skin, hair and eyes. “In type 2 cases, which it looks like this girl has, we see creamy skin and yellow or light brown hair, which sometimes darkens with age,” he told AOL News.
Jackson adds that the parents’ Nigerian ancestry makes albinism an even more likely culprit. “Albinism is more common in West Africa than the rest of the world,” he said.
The condition also could have lain dormant for many years, explaining why the Ihegboros don’t remember any pale-skinned ancestors. “It’s a recessive trait — which means that carriers don’t show any signs of albinism — so you can go many generations and not see any physical evidence of albinism in a family,” Jackson explained. “It’s only when two carriers have children together that you see it, when it will likely appear in a quarter of their children.”
The Ihegboros, though, don’t really care why their new daughter looks so different from their other children. “She’s beautiful and I love her,” mother Angela said. “Her color doesn’t matter. She’s a miracle baby.”