Facial shape genes identified

Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands researcher Manfred Kayser is the leading author of a publication in PLOS Genetics on the finding of five genes that determine human facial shapes. The study is a cooperation of researchers from the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Monozygotic twins have almost identical faces and siblings usually have more similar faces than unrelated people, implying that genes play a major role in the appearance of the human face. However, almost nothing is known about the genes responsible for facial morphology in humans.

Facial landmarks mapped

This study, carried out on behalf of the International Visible Trait Genetics (VisiGen) Consortium, used head magnetic resonance images together with portrait photographs to map facial landmarks, from which facial distances were estimated. The researchers then applied a genome-wide association approach, with independent replication, to finding DNA variants involved in facial shapes in almost 10,000 individuals.

Three of the five genes identified have been implicated previously by other approaches in vertebrate craniofacial development and disease;
of these three, one was reported to be involved in facial morphology in a genome-wide association study on children published earlier this year. The remaining two genes potentially represent completely new players in the molecular networks governing facial development.

Phantom portrait

Professor Manfred Kayser from the Department of Forensic Molecular Biology, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, the leading author of the study, said: “These are exciting first results that mark the beginning of the genetic understanding of human facial morphology. Perhaps some time it will be possible to draw a phantom portrait of a person solely from his or her DNA left behind, which provides interesting applications such as in forensics. We already can predict from DNA certain eye and hair colours with quite high accuracies.”

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