What if it were possible to take a picture, or a mugshot of you, using nothing but a strand of your DNA? That scenario came one step closer to reality this week when a team of scientists at Pennsylvania State University in University Park created a program that can create a 3-D facial reconstruction from a sample of DNA.
In order to be able to achieve this, the team fed a computer program data they had gathered through high-resolution images of the faces of 592 people of various ancestry from the countries of Cape Verde, Brazil and the United States. They placed a grid over the modeled 3-D images and created over 7,000 data points, on which they did statistical calculations to determine how those points were influenced by ancestry, sex and genes. The faces were also rated in terms of perceived masculinity or femininity, and ethnicity.
The team has identified 25 unique places on 20 genes that are associated with facial shape. With this information in the computer program, the team can create a three-dimensional model of a face using a DNA sequence.
According to Mark Shriver, who leads the Pennsylvania team, they are now trying to get information from more people and more genes so that they can refine their results and incorporate other details into the program, such as hair texture.
While the work on DNA mugshots may be possible, it still has quite a way to go, according to Dr. Kun Tang, who is also working on the problem of facial reconstruction. Dr. Tang is also looking for a way to correlate certain genes to how the face looks, but says that he is sure that there is no one single gene responsible “that suddenly makes your nose big or small.” And there are other complicating factors as well, like climate, which is thought to have an influence on how the face looks
Tang’s team has also been using high-resolution scans to try to connect facial features to particular genes. They have been able to produce scans with 30,000 data points. Like Shriver’s group, they were able to identify several locations on genes that had high correlation to certain kinds of facial features and they are also in the process of collecting more facial samples from around the world so that they can see if there are differences in facial features regionally.
As they are better able to calculate what a person looks like from strands of DNA, the teams imagine that the technique could be used for things like determining what a parent looks like based on the DNA of a child, or learning more about what our human ancestors looked liked.
Law enforcement is also interested in whether it is possible to create a mugshot from DNA, and Shriver is currently working with them on a case of serial rape in Pennsylvania. Shriver admits that this technique is not ready for regular or routine use but if it does reach the point where it is used, images created by DNA could not be used as evidence in a trail. It could only be used to identify people of interest.
By Dan Reyes