15 new genes identified that shape human faces

February 20, 2018, KU Leuven
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Researchers from KU Leuven (Belgium) and the universities of Pittsburgh, Stanford, and Penn State have identified 15 genes that determine facial features. The findings were published in Nature Genetics.

Our DNA determines what we look like, including our . That appeals to the popular imagination, as the potential applications are obvious. In the future, doctors could use DNA for skull and facial reconstructive surgery, forensic examiners could sketch a perpetrator's face on the basis of DNA retrieved from a crime scene, and historians would be able to reconstruct facial features using preserved DNA from days long gone.

But first, researchers need to figure out which are responsible for specific characteristics of . "We're basically looking for needles in a haystack," says researcher Seth Weinberg of the University of Pittsburgh. "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."

In a new study conducted by KU Leuven in collaboration with the universities of Pittsburgh, Stanford and Penn State, the researchers adopted a different approach. "Our search doesn't focus on specific traits," lead author Peter Claes (KU Leuven) explains. "My colleagues from Pittsburgh and Penn State each provided a database with 3-D 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 scientists were able to identify 15 locations in DNA. The Stanford team found out that genomic loci linked to these modular facial are active when faces develop in the womb. "Furthermore, we also discovered that different genetic variants identified in the study are associated with regions of the genome that influence when, where and how much genes are expressed," says Joanna Wysocka (Stanford). Seven of the 15 identified genes are linked to the nose, and that's good news, Claes says. "A skull doesn't contain any traces of the nose, which only consists of soft tissue and cartilage. Therefore, when forensic scientists want to reconstruct a face on the basis of a skull, the nose is the main obstacle. If the skull also yields DNA, it would become much easier in the future to determine the shape of the nose."

In any case, the four universities will continue their research using even bigger databases.

But practical applications are not imminent, says Mark Shriver (Penn State): "We won't be able to predict a correct and complete face on the basis of DNA tomorrow. 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." Claes, who specialises in computational image analysis, points out that there are other potential applications, as well: "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 the brain, as well as in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's."

Explore further: Hereditary facial features could be strongly influenced by a single gene variant, a new study finds

More information: Peter Claes et al, Genome-wide mapping of global-to-local genetic effects on human facial shape, Nature Genetics (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41588-018-0057-4

Related Stories

Hereditary facial features could be strongly influenced by a single gene variant, a new study finds

January 9, 2018
Do you have your grandmother's eyes? Or your father's nose? A new study by the Universities of Oxford and Surrey has uncovered variations in singular genes that have a large impact on human facial features, paving the way ...

Face shape is in the genes

August 25, 2016
Many of the characteristics that make up a person's face, such as nose size and face width, stem from specific genetic variations, reports John Shaffer of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and colleagues, in a ...

3-D model links facial features and DNA

March 20, 2014
DNA can already tell us the sex and ancestry of unknown individuals, but now an international team of researchers is beginning to connect genetics with facial features, degrees of femininity and racial admixture.

Twin research reveals which facial features are most controlled by genetics

April 19, 2017
Research published this week in Scientific Reports uses computer image and statistical shape analysis to shed light on which parts of the face are most likely to be inherited.

Genes for nose shape found

May 19, 2016
Genes that drive the shape of human noses have been identified by a UCL-led study.

Ability to ID face paralysis in others increases with severity

February 12, 2018
(HealthDay)—Laypersons' ability to identify facial paralysis increases with the severity of the condition, although individuals are not always able to accurately localize paralysis on the face, according to a study published ...

Recommended for you

Psychiatric disorders share an underlying genetic basis

June 21, 2018
Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often run in families. In a new international collaboration, researchers explored the genetic connections between these and other disorders of the brain at ...

Deep data dive helps predict cerebral palsy

June 21, 2018
When University of Delaware molecular biologist Adam Marsh was studying the DNA of worms living in Antarctica's frigid seas to understand how the organisms managed to survive—and thrive—in the extremely harsh polar environment, ...

Genetic variation in progesterone receptor tied to prematurity risk, study finds

June 21, 2018
Humans have unexpectedly high genetic variation in the receptor for a key pregnancy-maintaining hormone, according to research led by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine. The finding may help explain ...

Shared genetics may shape treatment options for certain brain disorders

June 20, 2018
Symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, including psychosis, depression and manic behavior, have both shared and distinguishing genetic factors, an international consortium led by researchers from Vanderbilt University ...

Scientists unravel DNA code behind rare neurologic disease

June 20, 2018
Scientists conducting one of the largest full DNA analyses of a rare disease have identified a gene mutation associated with a perplexing brain condition that blinds and paralyzes patients.

Simple sugar delays neurodegeneration caused by enzyme deficiency

June 20, 2018
A new therapeutic approach may one day delay neurodegeneration typical of a disease called mucopolysaccharidoses IIIB (MPS IIIB). Neurodegeneration in this condition results from the abnormal accumulation of essential cellular ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.