Computer program crudely predicts a facial structure from genetic variations.
Researchers have now shown how 24 gene variants can be used to construct crude models of facial structure. Thus, leaving a hair at a crime scene could one day be as damning as leaving a photograph of your face. Researchers have developed a computer program that can create a crude three-dimensional (3D) model of a face from a DNA sample.
Using genes to predict eye and hair color is relatively easy. But the complex structure of the face makes it more valuable as a forensic tool — and more difficult to connect to genetic variation, says anthropologist Mark Shriver of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who led the work, published today in PLOS Genetics1.
Shriver and his colleagues took high-resolution images of the faces of 592 people of mixed European and West African ancestry living in the United States, Brazil and Cape Verde. They used these images to create 3D models, laying a grid of more than 7,000 data points on the surface of the digital face and determining by how much particular points on a given face varied from the average: whether the nose was flatter, for instance, or the cheekbones wider. They had volunteers rate the faces on a scale of masculinity and femininity, as well as on perceived ethnicity.
Next, the authors compared the volunteers’ genomes to identify points at which the DNA differed by a single base, called a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP). To narrow down the search, they focused on genes thought to be involved in facial development, such as those that shape the head in early embryonic development, and those that are mutated in disorders associated with features such as cleft palate. Then, taking into account the person’s sex and ancestry, they calculated the statistical likelihood that a given SNP was involved in determining a particular facial feature.
This pinpointed 24 SNPs across 20 genes that were significantly associated with facial shape. A computer program the team developed using the data can turn a DNA sequence from an unknown individual into a predictive 3D facial model (see 'Face to face'). Shriver says that the group is now trying to integrate more people and genes, and look at additional traits, such as hair texture and sex-specific differences.