Remember back in September when Craig Venter said guaranteeing anonymity of DNA donors was a false promise? I’m sure some of you do as it was one of the most popular stories of 2017. Venter’s statement came under fire due to his ‘genetic mug shots’ being a little underwhelming. If the accuracy ever gets high enough, there would still be some interesting applications (including the privacy problem) of facial reconstruction in this manner.

Talking about the nature of the team’s work, Pittsburgh’s Seth Weinberg had the following to say, “We’re basically looking for needles in a haystack. In the past, scientists selected specific features, including the distance between the eyes or the width of the mouth. They would then look for a connection between this feature and many genes. This has already led to the identification of a number of genes but, of course, the results are limited because only a small set of features are selected and tested.”

The new study took a different approach, letting the traits identify themselves. Lead author, Peter Claes, of KU Leuven, explains, “Our search doesn’t focus on specific traits. My colleagues from Pittsburgh and Penn State each provided a database with 3D images of faces and the corresponding DNA of these people. Each face was automatically subdivided into smaller modules. Next, we examined whether any locations in the DNA matched these modules. This modular division technique made it possible for the first time to check for an unprecedented number of facial features.”

The nose is one of the main identifying features of a face. As the skull contains no trace of it, it’s traditionally been a huge obstacle in facial reconstruction. Out of the fifteen identified genes in this study, seven are linked to the nose. So does this mean we’ll be able to accurately reconstruct facial features from ancient DNA? Someday, but not quite yet. “We won’t be able to predict a correct and complete face on the basis of DNA tomorrow.” Penn State’s Mark Shriver continues, “We’re not even close to knowing all the genes that give shape to our face. Furthermore, our age, environment, and lifestyle have an impact on what our face looks like as well.”

For the final word, we turn to Peter Claes who hints at some medically exciting potential applications to come, “With the same novel technology used in this study, we can also link other medical images – such as brain scans – to genes. In the long term, this could provide genetic insight into the shape and functioning of our brain, as well as in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”


Materials provided by KU Leuven. Note: Content may be edited for style and length. 

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