Linking facial features to genetic data could lead to DNA "mug shots"


March 27, 2014

It may someday be possible to ascertain someone's appearance by analyzing their DNA

It may someday be possible to ascertain someone's appearance by analyzing their DNA

As any fan of just about any TV cop show will tell you, it's possible to determine someone's sex and race based on a sample of their DNA. In the future, however, such samples may provide police with even more valuable information ... they might allow investigators to construct an image of the person's face.

The international team of scientists conducting the research has been studying how the genes that are used to determine a person's sex, genomic ancestry and genotype – all of which can already be obtained from their DNA – might be linked to their facial structure.

One of the ways in which the researchers have been doing this involves starting with a database of 3D facial scans of people from the US, Cape Verde and Brazil – all of the populations sampled were made up of individuals of mixed West African and European ancestry. The 3D computer models were overlaid with grids, that were used to numerically measure the overall shape of each face, along with size, shape and location of its various features.

By then using "statistical methods," it was possible to identify the relationship between those measured values, and the person's sex and genomic ancestry. Furthermore, the scientists have also determined which genes are responsible for the appearance of which parts of the face – they did so by first noting which genes were responsible for malformations of those same features.

Although more research is still required, it is hoped that ultimately it will be possible to create a rendering of a criminal or victim's face, based on nothing more than a DNA sample. The technology could also conceivably be used to approximate the appearance of parents using a a child's DNA, or even to get a better idea of what our prehistoric ancestors looked like.

Institutions involved in the study include Penn State University; Smurfitt Institute of Genetics, Dublin; Stanford University; HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Huntsville, Alabama; Universidade do Porto, Portugal; Universidade Católica de Brasília; University of Western Australia, Perth; Murdoch University, Perth; King Edward Memorial Hospital, Perth; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; and University of Connecticut, Storrs.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal PLOS Genetics.

Source: Penn State

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth
1 Comment

Applications like this make one wonder just where developments in DNA finger-printing will stop? Clearly, there are advantages to many of the uses to which it has been put. However, and admittedly with perhaps more than a hint of paranoia, one gets the feeling that with each new application the benefits it brings are accompanied by a tangible loss of freedom.

Mel Tisdale
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