Heritability and genomics of facial characteristics

By Razib Khan | June 27, 2011 12:49 am

On several occasions I’ve gotten into discussions with geneticists about the possibility of reconstructing someone’s facial structure by genes alone. Combined with advances in pigmentation prediction by genetics, this could put the sketch artist out of business! But all that begs the question: how heritable are facial features anyhow? Impressionistically we know that feature are broadly heritable. This isn’t a tenuous supposition, you see the resemblance over and over across families. All that being said, what are the specific quantitative heritability estimates? How do they relate to other traits we’re interested in? This review from the early 1990s seems to have what I’m looking for, The Role of Genetics in Craniofacial Morphology and Growth. Below is a table which shows averaged heritabilities for a range of facial quantitative traits from a large number of studies:

h2 is the narrow-sense heritability. Also, in care you are curious cephalometry seems to be utilizing imaging of some sort. Anthropmetry refers to the more conventional measuring techniques (get out the calipers!). These results suggest that facial features are typically more heritable than behavioral traits (usually < 0.50), but less heritable than height (0.8-0.9). This seems plausible to me.

These results came to my attention because of a paper in the European Journal of Human Genetics, Genetic determination of human facial morphology: links between cleft-lips and normal variation:

Recent genome-wide association studies have identified single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with non-syndromic cleft lip with or without cleft palate (NSCL/P), and other previous studies showed distinctly differing facial distance measurements when comparing unaffected relatives of NSCL/P patients with normal controls. Here, we test the hypothesis that genetic loci involved in NSCL/P also influence normal variation in facial morphology. We tested 11 SNPs from 10 genomic regions previously showing replicated evidence of association with NSCL/P for association with normal variation of nose width and bizygomatic distance in two cohorts from Germany (N=529) and the Netherlands (N=2497). The two most significant associations found were between nose width and SNP rs1258763 near the GREM1 gene in the German cohort (P=6 × 10−4), and between bizygomatic distance and SNP rs987525 at 8q24.21 near the CCDC26 gene (P=0.017) in the Dutch sample. A genetic prediction model explained 2% of phenotype variation in nose width in the German and 0.5% of bizygomatic distance variation in the Dutch cohort. Although preliminary, our data provide a first link between genetic loci involved in a pathological facial trait such as NSCL/P and variation of normal facial morphology. Moreover, we present a first approach for understanding the genetic basis of human facial appearance, a highly intriguing trait with implications on clinical practice, clinical genetics, forensic intelligence, social interactions and personal identity.

The authors get to the point at the very end of the discussion:

In conclusion, we have demonstrated that association with one marker could explain ca. 2% of nose width variation, and a tentative association between bizygomatic distance and other markers could account for about 0.5% of variation. Finally, our study represents the first approach to understanding genetic control of facial morphology, demonstrating that predicting facial distance traits from genetic markers is not nearly as straightforward as it is for human eye…and hair color…and that further genetic research will be needed to identify predictive genetic markers, which could achieve the accuracy needed for practical applications such as future forensics.

In other words, the genetic architecture of the traits which govern facial features are going to be more like height than pigmentation. That means forensic facial reconstruction will be a way off in the distance. But how far in the distance? A friend pointed out recently if that full genome sequences were ever associated with Facebook profiles that might be a data miner’s dream come true. The way is already out there, the key is the will, ethical and computational.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
  • Peter Ellis

    I’m impressed by the study showing a heritability of 1.22

  • Charles Nydorf

    On the largely subjective and anecdotal side, I have been startled by photos of ancestors from the mid-nineteenth century showing features found in the present generations of my family.

  • Jim Johnson

    I would think that identical twin studies would answer the question of facial feature heritability fairly conclusively.

  • dave chamberlin

    “The way is already out there, the key is the will, ethical and computational.” Well said. Faces are very interesting, we are preoccupied with them, as evidenced by my two month old granddaughter who has just recently learned to stare with total concentration into other peoples faces for feedback. Faces are a window into the genetic health of a prospective mate, we are highly attracted to a perfectly symmetrical faces, and while some of this is cultural certainly not all of it. There is no one gene that makes a super models face but a perfect symmetry of many, which is a nice visual example of complex traits governed by multiple genes. I find it a bit amusing when people proclaim it is news worthy that we can’t find any genes that correlate highly to intelligence and then use it as a bad argument to say intelligence is environmental. No one is searching for genes that cause beauty. A suppose light blue eyes might correlate positively with beauty but you can still be butt ugly with pale blue eyes.


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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