Police may soon be able to get a picture of your face from DNA


Police have been using DNA evidence to convict, or in some cases acquit accused criminals for many years now. Characteristics such as gender and ancestry can also be determined from DNA but now an international team of researchers believe that they are close to being able to connect genetics with facial features.

"We use DNA to match to an individual or identify an individual, but you can get so much more from DNA," said Mark D. Shriver, professor of anthropology, Penn State in a statement. "Currently we can't go from DNA to a face or from a face to DNA, but it should be possible."

In a paper published on March 20 in the open access journal PLOS Genetics, Shrivner and his colleagues laid out their findings. The team looked at face shape as well as genetic markers for face shape. In order to study the face shape they used test subjects of West African and European ancestry from the U.S., Brazil and Cape Verde.

Researchers placed a grid on 3D images of the faces and measured the spacial coordinates and then measured the coordinates of facial features in the grid. Using statistics they determined the relationship between the variations in the faces, gender, ancestry and the genes that determine the shape of the head and face.

According to New Scientist:
Next the researchers tested each of the volunteers for 76 genetic variants in genes that were already known to cause facial abnormalities when mutated. They reasoned that normal variation in genes that can cause such problems might have a subtle effect on the shape of the face. After using their model to control for the effects of sex and ancestry, they found 24 variants in 20 different genes that seemed to be useful predictors of facial shape (PLoS Genetics, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004224).

To get a sense of the method's current power, New Scientist asked Claes and Shriver to predict the appearance of a young woman based on a scan of her DNA performed by the Californian company 23andMe. You can judge for yourself how closely their prediction resembles former New Scientist reporter Sara Reardon in the photos below.


All agree that the technology isn't fully ready yet. However, it is likely that in the not too distant future that a single skin cell, hair, drop of saliva or blood left at a crime scene could give the police an incredibly accurate 'photo' of a suspect. When this technology is combined with facial recognition, police could have a name, photo and address in a relatively brief period of time and without any witnesses.
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