New research might provide an insight into an age-old question: do your siblings really know you better than anyone else?
Genetics has an effect on physical appearance, but it’s difficult to identify the precise genes that cause certain features.
The research used siblings, who share 50% of their genes, to spot features that might be more closely linked to genes.
The study team, based at Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, 3D-scanned the faces of 424 children from 194 European nuclear families.
The scans revealed 1,048 physical traits that were shared between siblings – meaning there was probably a genetic reason for those traits.
Traits included things such as upper lip thickness, length and narrowness of the nose, and shape of the columella (the part that links the tip and the base of the nose), according to Hanne Hoskens, who led the study.
These traits were then used to examine a database of 8,246 unrelated people of European ancestry, each of whom had also had their DNA sequenced.
The researchers found 218 points, or loci, on the human genome that were linked to the facial traits they’d identified.
All of these loci have previously been linked to embryonic facial development.
Study author Peter Claes says that Europeans were chosen for the analysis because they’re the group for which the most data exists.
“The main hamper is the availability of datasets,” he says.
“We are currently in the process of repeating the work on a database of Tanzania, where we do intend to investigate the overlap with the current findings.”
The researchers say this information could be used to examine human evolution, and could also be helpful in medical surgery and forensic science.
Claes also says the work could be useful for kinship recognition – distinct from commercial facial recognition technology.
“The work we present in fact provides an alternative kind of facial recognition, referred to as kinship recognition, in which algorithms are trained to recognise your kin.”
He says an example of its use could be “in the case of missing siblings, where you would match the faces of candidate siblings that were lost and found or through surveillance”.
A paper describing the research is published in PLOS Genetics.
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Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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