DNA Could Revolutionize Facial Reconstruction
March 24, 2014

Scientists Working On Facial Reconstruction Method Using Genetic Material

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While scientists can already use DNA to determine an unknown person’s gender or ancestry, new research appearing in the March 20 issue of PLOS Genetics suggests that it will soon be able to help identify his or her actual facial features.

According to the Daily Mail, the researchers examined the genes that appeared to correlate with facial structures, as well as the facial structures of the people possessing those genes. They had third-party experts characterize different types of facial structures and developed DNA-based statistical reconstruction models.

As part of their research, Penn State University population geneticist Mark Shriver and his colleagues opted to measure face shape in population samples with mixed West African and European ancestry from the US, Brazil and Cape Verde. The placed a grid on 3D images of each subject’s faces and measured the coordinates of the grid points, then used statistical methods to account for other factors that could impact the shape of the head and the face, including sex, genomic ancestry and genes.

The research team, which included Peter Claes, an imaging specialist with the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium, captured the images of nearly 600 volunteers using stereoscopic camera equipment, according to NewScientist’s Peter Aldhous. Since people of African and European ancestry tend to have faces with different shapes, analyzing men and women of mixed ancestry increased the likelihood of locating the right genetic variants..

Following the scans, the researchers superimposed a mesh of over 7,000 points onto those scans, recording each one’s precise location. Then they tested each volunteer for 76 genetic variants in genes already known to cause facial abnormalities when mutated, figuring that normal variation in those genes could subtly impact the shape of a person’s face. Ultimately, they discovered 24 variants in 20 different genes which appeared to be useful in predicting a person’s facial shape, Aldhous explained in an article Thursday.

The study authors said that they chose to analyze the face since it is the most visible part of a human’s body, and the characteristics are likely to be influenced by selection. Temperatures, the environment, precipitation, elevation and other factors in a person’s surroundings could impact some physical features, while specific facial characteristics could be influenced by sexual selection – a conscious or unconscious preference for a certain look.

One of the practical uses for this technology could be in the criminal justice field, where law enforcement officials could take a trace amount of DNA left behind at a crime scene to reconstruct a realistic-looking wanted poster when other evidence is lacking, Aldhous said. Reconstructions based on these genetic variants aren’t ready for regular use by crime labs yet, the investigators said, but Shriver is said to be working alongside police in Pennsylvania to help find the culprit behind two cases of serial rape in that state.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Justice and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Experts from the Smurfitt Institute of Genetics in Dublin, Stanford University, the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, the Universidade do Porto in Portugal, the University of Western Australia, Murdoch University, King Edward Memorial Hospital in Australia, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Connecticut also took part in the research.