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February 2015

Can your DNA predict what you look like?

On 30th January 2015 the Mail Online reported that forensic experts can use a person’s DNA to predict their eye and hair colour, freckling and the shape of their face.

The technique is called DNA phenotyping and uses genetic ancestry information from DNA to predict physical characteristics. The Mail article showed images from a US company that suggested using information from a person’s DNA, researchers could generate facial reconstructions for use in forensic police work.

DNA Phenotyping (C) Parabon Nanolabs

Dr Matthias Wienroth from the Northumbria University Centre for Forensic Science told us that “Determining face shape using DNA analysis is still at an early research stage, as many genes are involved. Analysing ancestry-informative markers is an emerging technology that can provide estimates of a person’s genetic ancestry rather than clear-cut information on the appearance of a person. This technique provides indicators for appearance based to some extent on our cultural expectations about, for example, the appearance of a person with Northern European ancestry compared to a person with East Asian ancestry. This is not the same nor as informative as analyses that use other genetic markers to provide information about a person’s externally visible characteristics such as face shape, eye or hair colour.”

The US company claims it can use as little as 0.05 nanograms of DNA for its tests, but Dr Wienroth says this “is probably a little ambitious for now, however, efforts are made – as part of so-called ‘next generation sequencing’ – to achieve analysis sensitivity to that level.”

Dr Wienroth concludes:

“Whilst DNA technologies for externally visible characteristics are at different stages of development, with hair and iris colour being the furthest along, they should be used with care so that investigators don’t expect a ‘photo-fit’ (as implied in the article by the use of the term ‘e-fit’). An article in the FT Magazine from 30 January emphasises that information about a person’s appearance, and on their genetic ancestry would only provide police with 'intelligence leads' rather than information than can be used as evidence.”

For more on this, read our guide: Sense About Genetic Ancestry Testing.