Skin flakes, stray hairs, beads of sweat. Our DNA gets left behind everywhere we go. Every person’s DNA is unique, and that genetic makeup translates to our uniqueness as a person – including our faces. Scientists have been exploring how to make use of that connection. The ultimate goal is to predict someone’s face just based on a sample of their DNA.

The latest research progressing this effort was published this December in Nature Communications. The scientists don’t quite get to the point of mapping your face with your DNA (no one has – yet). Instead, they developed a computer program that can narrow down what you look like based on particular segments of your DNA. The computer’s algorithm was fed information from thousands of participants from all over the world: both their faces and their DNA. Essentially, all of this information was given to the program as a way of training it to learn trends about certain facial characteristics and certain parts of a person’s DNA. Of course, not every bit of someone’s DNA dictates how their face looks. The researchers needed to add nuance to how they taught their program to read someone’s genetic sample. They essentially partitioned the human face into about 60 parts (e.g. the nose is split into a half dozen sections). They then used the program to track which parts of the DNA seemed to most significantly influence that facial segment.

Identifying and verifying someone’s face based on their DNA was much better than random chance. In particular, the scientists’ algorithm was effective at identifying their sex, age, and BMI. Other features fared worse. There are a couple major problems to contend with when it comes to the business of matching faces with DNA. First, many of our facial features aren’t just determined by one gene. They’re determined by several, further complicating what is already a highly sophisticated computer program. Second, how we look is hugely dictated by DNA. But our environment and our own actions play a role as well. One obvious example would be Mike Tyson’s face tattoo. A more subtle example would be a nice tan. In the context of law enforcement searching for a suspect, the researchers therefore emphasize that their program is really best suited for narrowing down a search. Constructing a perfect face of some unknown assailant is not yet feasible.

Though it is down the road, there are already serious ethical concerns about the technology. Already, companies who can determine your ancestry from a spit sample are creating genomic databases. Their guarantee that your name will be deleted from your record looks rather silly if your face can be exposed from DNA regardless. It should again be emphasized that the technology is not there yet. But major governments like the U.S. and China seem to have a keen interest in investing in the development of this technique of more conveniently identifying people from just stray hair. The concerns about privacy will likely only heighten.


Managing Correspondent: Jordan Wilkerson

Original Scientific Article: Facial recognition from DNA using face-to-DNA classifiersNature Communications

Image Credit: “DSP 160: Eye Lashes 2007-10-24” by vernhart is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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