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Scientists use DNA to predict facial features

24 March 2014

By Chris Hardy

Appeared in BioNews 747

A new technique allows scientists to make guesses about what a person's face looks like, by examining just 20 genes in their DNA.

The researchers say it may one day be possible for the procedure to be applied to DNA left at crime scenes: faces could be modelled to help police to narrow the pool of potential suspects.

Dr Peter Claes, the first author of the study, told New Scientist: 'I believe that in five to ten years' time, we will be able to computationally predict a face'.

The researchers placed a grid on 3D models of subjects' faces and measured the spatial coordinates of the grid points. Using statistical methods, they were then able to examine the relationship between variation in the faces, and the differing effects of sex, genomic ancestry and genes that affect the shape of the head and face.

To identify genes in that category, the scientists looked at genes that had previously been found to cause facial deformations when mutated. The thinking was that even when not mutated, normal variation within these genes might affect the appearance of the face and the head.

Facial characteristics are likely to be influenced by selection: environmental factors such as rainfall and local temperatures could influence certain physical features. Similarly, sexual selection may play a role in the development of facial features; fostering a preference for a certain look. Both forms of selection result in the concentration of certain variations in geological areas over time.

For this study, the subjects were of mixed West African and European ancestry, allowing them to understand more about the different contributions made by each gene.

'Probably only five percent of genes show a difference between populations', explained Professor Mark Shriver of Penn State University, USA, who was involved in the research. 'We are using different populations because they have had different environments and different social environments'.

The procedure requires much refinement before it can be used in a forensic setting. A major challenge for the future is working out how just many genes are involved in face shape.

'We use DNA to match an individual or identify an individual, but you can get so much more from DNA', said Professor Shriver. 'Currently we can't go from DNA to a face or from a face to DNA, but it should be possible'.

The technique could also have applications outside forensic science. For example, it could be used to predict the facial features of descendants, deceased ancestors, and even extinct human species.

The study was published in PLOS Genetics.

EurekAlert! (press release) | 20 March 2014
Daily Mail | 20 March 2014
New Scientist | 20 March 2014
PLOS Genetics | 20 March 2014
Forbes | 20 March 2014


04 December 2017 - by Martha Henriques 
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11 September 2017 - by Ruth Retassie 
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28 October 2013 - by Dr Naqash Raja 
Regions of the genome that do not code for proteins have been found to shape facial features, research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USA, has shown...
17 September 2012 - by Daryl Ramai 
Five genes that determine a person’s facial shape have been identified, in a study of almost 10,000 Europeans...
06 December 2010 - by Sarah Pritchard 
A recent disclosure by WikiLeaks of tens of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables includes instructions to US diplomats to collect biometric information on 'key civilian and military officials' including 'fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans'....
25 September 2006 - by Laura Goodall 
A developmental gene has been found to provide a connection between several genes involved in the formation of a cleft lip and palate. Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts, US found that when the gene SUMO1 is under-expressed and does not...

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