BBC Earth (Asia) - - Update -

At the Univer­sity of Leu­ven in Bel­gium, a team of re­searchers has iden­ti­fied a set of 15 genes that they be­lieve de­ter­mine our fa­cial fea­tures. This re­search could ben­e­fit sur­geons at­tempt­ing to re­con­struct the faces of burns and trauma pa­tients, ar­chae­ol­o­gists who’ve un­earthed hu­man re­mains, and po­lice foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tors who only have DNA ev­i­dence to iden­tify vic­tims.

In the past, sci­en­tists se­lected spe­cific fea­tures, such as the dis­tance be­tween the eyes or the width of the mouth, then looked for a con­nec­tion be­tween th­ese fea­tures and the genes. A num­ber of genes have been found us­ing this method, but it’s lim­ited by the fact that only a small set of fea­tures are tested.

In the new study, the re­searchers used a data­base of DNA along with 3D im­ages of sub­jects’ faces, which were au­to­mat­i­cally sub­di­vided into small seg­ments. By com­par­ing sim­i­lar fa­cial fea­tures to sim­i­lar stretches of DNA, they were able to de­ter­mine the genes re­spon­si­ble for de­ter­min­ing the shape of sev­eral fa­cial fea­tures. Us­ing this method, the sci­en­tists were able to iden­tify 15 lo­ca­tions in our DNA that are ac­tive while our faces are de­vel­op­ing in the womb. Of th­ese 15 genes, 7 are linked to shap­ing the nose.

“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,” said the Univer­sity of Leu­ven’s Dr Peter Claes. “If the skull also yields DNA, it would be­come much eas­ier in the fu­ture to de­ter­mine the shape of the nose.”

The team now plan to fur­ther re­fine their work, draw­ing on larger data­bases of DNA and fa­cial im­ages.

A bet­ter grasp of how DNA shapes our faces would ben­e­fit ar­chae­ol­o­gists, sur­geons and foren­sic sci­en­tists

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