Researchers have identified the genetic variants that contribute to specific facial features – and it could one day allow forensic scientists to recreate the faces of criminals based on DNA at the scene.
According to the new study, traits including nose size, face width, and even distance between the eyes are associated with particular genetic variations.
The findings so far represent just a small number of the genes that play into the size and shape of a human face, but provide new insight on both normal and abnormal facial development.
In a paper published to the journal Plos Genetics, researchers describe the ‘genome-wide association study’ which allowed them to trace the origins of numerous characteristics of a person’s face.
The team looked for associations between 20 facial characteristics measured from 3D images of 3,118 healthy individuals, all of European descent.
Along with the images, they examined nearly one million single base pair variations, called SNPs, across the genome.
Through the new analysis, which also considered results from two earlier studies, the researchers confirmed previous findings and determined that facial width, distance between the eyes, size of the nose, and distance between the lips and eyes had significant associations with specific SNPs.
‘Our analysis identified several genetic associations with facial features not previously described in earlier genome-wide studies,’ says corresponding author, Dr. Seth Weinberg.
‘What is exciting is that many of these associations involve chromosomal regions harbouring genes with known cranioformal function.
‘Such findings can provide insights into the role genes play in the formation of the face and improve our understanding of the causal factors leading to certain craniofacial defects.
The study has implications for future research on facial anomalies, including cleft lip and palate, but the researchers say mapping larger numbers of these genes will require much greater samples and a more comprehensive approach.
Further developments in this area could also benefit forensic investigations, with potential to allow scientists to recreate the faces of perpetrators based on evidence left at the crime scene.
‘Our ability to connect specific genetic variants to ubiquitous facial traits can inform our understanding of normal and abnormal craniofacial development,’ the authors wrote in the paper.
And they say it could ‘provide potential predictive models of evolutionary changes in human facial features, and improve our ability to create forensic facial reconstructions from DNA.’
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