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Facing up to our genetic heritage

Researchers from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) have helped identify five of the genes that determine face shape.

Professor Nick Martin, Head of QIMR’s Genetic Epidemiology Laboratory, led the Australian component of the international study of 10,000 people of European descent.

“These are exciting first results that mark the beginning of the genetic understanding of human face shapes,” Professor Martin said.

“Twins can obviously have almost identical faces, and siblings usually have more similar faces than unrelated people, all of which tells us that genes play a major role in our appearance. But up until now, almost nothing has been known about the genes responsible.”

The findings may also have interesting applications in forensics.

“One day it may be possible to draw a phantom portrait of a person solely from the DNA they’ve left behind, and this would be a great boon for forensic investigations. We already can predict certain eye and hair colours from DNA with quite high accuracy,” Professor Martin said

The study, carried out on behalf of the International Visible Trait Genetics (VisiGen) Consortium, used head magnetic resonance images and portrait photographs to map facial landmarks.

The researchers then applied a genome-wide association approach to find DNA variants influencing facial shape.

Three of the five genes identified by the team had been implicated in previous studies. The remaining two are new players in the molecular networks governing facial development.

The study was published in PLOS Genetics, and also involved researchers from The Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom.