DNA Mugshots Will Help Fight Crime


A new study published in the Public Library of Science Genetics (PLOS) Genetics online journal reveals that the process of creating computer generated images from DNA in the future will be capable of building viable mugshots that will help fight crime. This method of predictive modeling in terms of forensics would not just be useful for the classification of criminals, but also for cases in which victims cannot otherwise be identified.

Though the scientists from Penn State and the Catholic University of Leuven who performed the study need to replicate their findings, two rape cases in Pennsylvania are already using the science to help solve the crimes, and according to its proponents, it will not only be able to transfer DNA to a facial image but will also be used to convert facial images into DNA. As of now, this kind of evidence is inadmissible in court, but it will be used as a guide until the science can be solidified by legal precedents similar to the induction of early DNA testing. Reportedly, this technology will drastically be able to narrow the pool of suspects, and prospects for future application seem endless.

The study was headed by imaging specialist Peter Claes as well as geneticist Mark Shriver, who created a guideline for facial reconstruction by using genetic markers and information gathered from gender and race. With 600 volunteers from mixed descent, researchers created a map with 7,000 points and cross-referenced this data with 76 genetic variants that were known to cause facial abnormalities, eventually isolating 20 that could be traced reliably to the shape of a human’s face.

In Belgium, Peter Claes of the Catholic University of Leuven believes that in five to 10 years, computers will be able to accurately and efficiently recreate this information. Criminal investigators already use forensics to predict eye and hair color, and they have incorporated techniques to extract DNA from unidentifiable victims, including the use of maggots, and they have even discovered hidden faces by using hi-resolution photos of eyes. These new mugshots created from genetic links to ethnicity as well as masculine or feminine features will help fight crime in a similar way.

Professor Mark Shriver, an anthropologist and population geneticist at Pennsylvania State University, wanted to take that process to a new level. Using a stereoscopic camera, he says that they were systematically capable of connecting sex, ancestry, and genetic structure to a statistical model of their 3D images. Genetic variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, are known to shape the head during the development of the embryo, but in the journal Public Library of Science Genetics, his findings revealed how much could be delineated with that evidence.

In addition to eventually being used to recreate the faces of human ancestors, which are now being envisioned by artistic renditions based on fossils, and possibly even extinct cousins like Neanderthals, this process will be viable as long as there is DNA to be reconstructed. Using this as a guide, even future descendants could be accurately mapped, and the range of diagnostic applications is remarkable in its scope and depth. With bone structure being a primary tool, skeletal remains from cold cases will be readily identifiable.

Though the scientific feat of 3D imaging and the re-creation of a person’s entire genomic structure is still in its infancy, future studies will include a different population pool to confirm these findings. With individual genes singled out that can gauge the shape of lips and the prominence of bone structure around a person’s eyes, the hope of this science is that DNA will lead directly to virtual mugshots that will help fight crime, possibly with only a single hair as evidence.

By Elijah Stephens

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