Even though DNA analysis is still stuck in the past when applied by law enforcement today, scientists are still pushing the envelope with work that can turn DNA into a more effective investigative tool. In a new study published this week, researchers at Penn State and the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) created a statistical model for mapping accurate facial structures using racial, gender, and genetic markers. It’s hoped that the model not only be used for forensic analysis, but also for creating a clearer picture of humanity’s ancestors.
The team, led by geneticist Mark Shriver and imaging specialist Peter Claes, enlisted 600 volunteers with mixed European and West African ancestry to account for variations in facial structure. After capturing a 3D image of each volunteer’s face, the researchers created a mesh of 7000 points that were used to precisely measure how genes attached to ancestry and gender affect the face’s structural makeup. They then tested each volunteer for 76 genetic variants that could cause facial abnormalities when mutated, and were able to isolate 20 that could be reliably traced back to facial shape. This method has already proven to be more accurate than previous models, and, according to New Scientist, Shriver is already using the research to aid in two serial rape cases in Pennsylvania. Perhaps even more promising, Shriver hopes that the tool can be used to improve images for ancient hominins, whose accepted appearance today is mostly the result of educated guesswork based on fossilized remains.
There’s more work to be done, however. The research team now needs to conduct similar studies in different populations and successfully replicate their findings. Meanwhile, the results of this kind of facial analysis are not admissible in court, but can be used as a guide for identifying potential suspects. However, if the legal system can be cajoled into making better use of computer-based DNA analysis, it’s easy to imagine this research serving a useful function in the future.