24 July 2015

Faces from DNA

Welcome back. You’ll love this. The same day I started organizing notes for a blog post about research on something I thought was new and exciting, the evening news had a story about a company that’s been marketing that new and exciting something for six months.

The something is predicting facial images from DNA. Yep. Not only can DNA be used to identify your family tree and match you to crime scene evidence; it can now be used to predict facial features and from that produce a 3D image of your face, though as yet, it may not be a great resemblance.

My Introduction to the Research

It all began for me in March 2014, when I read a report on research that was fascinating but not quite ready for prime time or for me to blog about.

Photo of surgeon in BBC News
report on DNA-predicted
facial features.

A long list of international collaborators, led by researchers from Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Penn State University, derived 3D models of faces from images of 592 people of mixed West African and European ancestry from the United States, Brazil and Cape Verde.

They assessed facial variation from the images with a grid of over 7000 points, and they identified genome SNPs--a single nucleotide polymorphism is a variation among individuals at a single position in a DNA sequence. Incorporating ratings of masculinity, femininity and ethnicity, they calculated the likelihood that a given SNP was involved in determining a specific facial feature.

The researchers isolated 24 SNPs across 20 genes and, from the data, developed a computer program to approximate the appearance of a face from the genetic markers.

Because their work was actively proceeding and I had other blog topics, I filed away the study to await an update.  

Face derived from surgeon’s
DNA in BBC News report.

Marketed Applications

Fifteen months later, the update appeared in the form of a BBC News report, which seemed to demonstrate refinements and success. I’d found my next blog topic!

By chance, the day I finally got started, I happened to watch NBC Nightly News. One story was about a private company’s DNA-predicted composite profile of eye color, skin color, hair color, face morphology and ancestry being used to narrow down suspects in the abduction and murder of an 8-yr old girl.

While I hesitate to advertise a company’s products, it’s kind of hard not to given the circumstances. There is no obvious connection between the researchers and company, and I can’t speak to the differences in technical approach or output. To be clear, research on this topic didn’t just begin with the 2014 report.

Wrap Up

Although I made no attempt to trace the work to or toward its origins, one example of cited research was a 2013 study from China. Those investigators took essentially the same approach as the work reviewed here, using higher density facial image sampling of some 1000 Han Chinese and testing associations of 10 SNPs, five of which showed significant correlation with facial features.

I should also note that reported research of this nature has not been limited to predicting facial features. A 2013 study from the Netherlands, for instance, evaluated the capability of known height-associated DNA variants to predict unusually tall stature.

Lastly, I was surprised and impressed to find related work, not in the research arena, but in the art world. And it preceded the research reviewed here. I’ll save that art work for next Tuesday.

Thanks again for stopping by. I hope it’s been worth your time and that you’ll return.


2014 paper on modeling facial shape from DNA in PLOS Genetics and article in Nature:
2015 BBC News report on building faces from DNA:
NBC News report on putting a face to DNA:
Parabon Nanolabs marketing news release and video on forensic DNA phenotyping service:
2013 study from China in PLOS Computational Biology journal:
2013 study from the Netherlands in Human Genetics journal:

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