Creating Forensic Sketches from DNA

This seems really science fictional:

It's already possible to make some inferences about the appearance of crime suspects from their DNA alone, including their racial ancestry and some shades of hair colour. And in 2012, a team led by Manfred Kayser of Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, identified five genetic variants with detectable effects on facial shape. It was a start, but still a long way from reliable genetic photofits.

To take the idea a step further, a team led by population geneticist Mark Shriver of Pennsylvania State University and imaging specialist Peter Claes of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium used a stereoscopic camera to capture 3D images of almost 600 volunteers from populations with mixed European and West African ancestry. Because people from Europe and Africa tend to have differently shaped faces, studying people with mixed ancestry increased the chances of finding genetic variants affecting facial structure.

Kayser's study had looked for genes that affected the relative positions of nine facial "landmarks", including the middle of each eyeball and the tip of the nose. By contrast, Claes and Shriver superimposed a mesh of more than 7000 points onto the scanned 3D images and recorded the precise location of each point. They also developed a statistical model to consider how genes, sex and racial ancestry affect the position of these points and therefore the overall shape of the face.

Next the researchers tested each of the volunteers for 76 genetic variants in genes that were already known to cause facial abnormalities when mutated. They reasoned that normal variation in genes that can cause such problems might have a subtle effect on the shape of the face. After using their model to control for the effects of sex and ancestry, they found 24 variants in 20 different genes that seemed to be useful predictors of facial shape (PLoS Genetics, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004224).

Reconstructions based on these variants alone aren't yet ready for routine use by crime labs, the researchers admit. Still, Shriver is already working with police to see if the method can help find the perpetrator in two cases of serial rape in Pennsylvania, for which police are desperate for new clues.

If I had to guess, I'd imagine this kind of thing is a couple of decades away. But with a large enough database of genetic data, it's certainly possible.

Posted on March 28, 2014 at 6:22 AM • 29 Comments

Comments

wumpusMarch 28, 2014 7:48 AM

"If I had to guess, I'd imagine this kind of thing is a couple of decades away. But with a large enough database of genetic data, it's certainly possible."

"A couple of decades away" or a couple of years away from beating current police sketches. Then we are left with all the issues of trying to force medieval systems based on witnesses and confessions into a modern world where at least a few people are aware how little correlation there is with actual guilt.

In the end, I suspect that such a system might have use in:
1. Getting the attention of someone with real evidence of the crime.
2. Being sufficiently correct to avoid being filtered out by such people due to the picture not matching anyone they saw.

I imagine this will be far, far, more useful for closing missing persons cases than convicting the correct suspect. I strongly suspect that the CSI effect will be useful for prosecutors right now where if someone happens to look close enough to the stock outputs of racial and "8 type" face output, a jury will quickly convict just on that, while expensive defensive lawyers will be able to use similar outputs (which won't usually look very close) to get their clients off (good luck with a public defender trying that).

blimMarch 28, 2014 8:17 AM

@wumpus That will be the work of the socialized populace, now that you listed the positive effects, let us continue what kind of conspiracies the self-centered part of humanity is going to use this for. :)

BuckMarch 28, 2014 8:34 AM

@blim

But that may just be the real conspiracy here!
Using the 'CSI effect' to effectively manipulate public perception... Perhaps in order to sway certain judges/juries into more emotional decisions whilst convincing them that they are simply seeing the 'facts'..?

thewizMarch 28, 2014 8:45 AM

This artist uses fingernails, skin, hair and other human excrement to get DNA. She uses the DNA map to create a human face that is very life-like. Take a look at:
http://www.deweyhagborg.com/

Also, use any search website with the "artist dna". Plenty of results.

wrecking ballMarch 28, 2014 11:19 AM

what happens when you combine human and fly DNA?

Could we see the result, please?

LewisMarch 28, 2014 12:01 PM

People might use those insights to create children that are more beautiful in the future?

0dayMarch 28, 2014 2:28 PM

Interesting to see how this technology would deal with a victim who has had plastic surgery...

Okian WarriorMarch 28, 2014 3:17 PM

People might use those insights to create children that are more beautiful in the future?

@Lewis: Possibly in the future, but probably not as a direct consequence of these studies.

Genes tend to have multiple functions, so that a gene for butterfly wing color also moderates growth hormones in the pupa stage and nerve-cell ion channel efficiency. When you knock out or change a gene with a known expression, chances are very good that you'll also get other unexpected changes. Frequently the unexpected changes are fatal.

To do what you want will require a more comprehensive knowledge of the genes in question - how they interact with other genes, what other places and times they are expressed, and so on.

Perhaps parents could use these insights to *select* more beautiful children - choosing to abort pregnancies which have a particularly ugly combination of genes and starting over.

We can already do this (test and selectively abort) with certain genetic diseases. It's no great stretch to imagine genetic information from the developing fetus combined into a comprehensive "success score" which can be used for these decisions.

JoeMarch 28, 2014 4:30 PM

Then we are left with all the issues of trying to force medieval systems based on witnesses and confessions into a modern world where at least a few people are aware how little correlation there is with actual guilt...
I strongly suspect that the CSI effect will be useful for prosecutors right now where if someone happens to look close enough to the stock outputs of racial and "8 type" face output, a jury will quickly convict just on that, while expensive defensive lawyers will be able to use similar outputs (which won't usually look very close) to get their clients off (good luck with a public defender trying that)

Once the process gets to the trial phase with a suspect, I expect they would just do a DNA comparison. This would only be useful for finding suspects, a DNA comparison would be much more useful in court.

MingoVMarch 28, 2014 5:47 PM

Facial structure is not totally based on genes. There is a significant congenital component based mostly on imperfections in frontal fusion of left-right halves of the face. The shape of the jaw and maxilla are based in part on tooth positions that cannot be predicted genetically.

Changes in face structures (primarily nose and ears) over time are somewhat but not perfectly predictable.

The task of DNA facial prediction will be difficult, and the predictions often will be inaccurate, especially for older adults.

Do Not Like ItMarch 29, 2014 1:31 AM

Please go back to the old format. This one is interesting, but clunky. Thanks.

Jenny JunoMarch 29, 2014 7:40 AM

The other half of the equation is the collection of the DNA.

A recent sci-fi tv cop show had the criminals using a "DNA bomb." Instead of trying to clean up the scene of their crime, they covered it with the DNA of thousands of different people. Considering how we constantly shed DNA wherever we go, it seems plausible to build "DNA bombs" without the consent, or even knowledge, of the DNA donors.

AlbertMarch 29, 2014 5:57 PM

But, but, but how can that be possible when we have been consistently told that race does not exist? That it is nothing but a social construct?

Chris AbbottMarch 29, 2014 8:43 PM

This gets to one of the documents I obtained (I have my own sources).

(U) GARBAGEFAIRY

TOP SECRET//SI//REL TO FVEYS

GARBAGEFAIRY is a new sensor implant suitable for use in bathrooms and dorm rooms. For the first time ever, the NSA has the ability to use GENEINT (DNA facial reconstruction) to eliminate the privacy of most humans with GARBAGEFAIRY.

- Totally customizable

- Fully integrates with CONFUSEDMARMOT

- 4G and WiFi Connectivity


Unit Cost: $4


In production

KnottWhittingleyMarch 30, 2014 12:07 AM

Chris Abbot,

Yeah, that's cool, but my favorite is SEWERGATOR, a drone that crawls through sanitary sewers doing Downstream Collection, accumulating samples from every effluent pipe it passes.
Back at the lab, the samples are DNA Analized and used for facial reconstruction (using POOPYHEAD), and a geographic information system compiles a SHITFACE map of what the individuals look like upstream of each sewer pipe.

KnottWhittingleyMarch 30, 2014 12:27 AM

Mike "Your Privacy Isn't Invaded if You Don't Find Out About It" Rogers (the head of the House Intelligence Committee) is suddenly retiring from Congress to become a right-wing radio host. I don't know what to make of that.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/28/nsa-ally-mike-rogers-leave-house-intelligence-committee

I have to wonder if there's anything going on that makes this a particularly good time to leave, or if he just wants a chance to slander Snowden and his "accomplices" full-time.

(Maybe something is about to come out about his involvement in Nasty Illegal Stuff... but then maybe he'd want to hang on to power to fend off attacks?)

At least he won't be one of the heads of the 2 Intelligence oversight committee anymore. (Though I'm sure the Republicans can find somebody just as bad if they want, and they probably will.)


KnottWhittingleyMarch 30, 2014 12:49 AM

Sorry, my last (OT) comment was supposed to go in the squid thread.

Harald:

hmm...is this the real Schneier.com? or a government trap?

You seem to think it's either/or. It's so last-century to create fake versions of existing sites as honeypots, when you can turn the real ones into honeypots with a few clicks of a mouse. (And with mass snooping, they're all honeypots to a large extent anyhow---it's a trivial matter of querying and maybe siccing QUANTUM on whoever comes up.)

With apologies to VISA, "collect it all" means "NSA: It's Everywhere You Want To Be (TM)."

All seriousness aside, if you just nudge the V in VISA right up against the I, it becomes NSA, (admittedly with a backward N). Coincidence? I don't think so!

Clive RobinsonMarch 30, 2014 4:56 AM

@ MiniGov,

    Facial structure is not totally based on genes.

I remember this coming up as a subject of debate a few years ago and a number of additional things got pointed out.

One was epigenetics apparently it's not just our risk to heart disease and type II and others we get from our grandparents, but familial recognition (a desirable trait in a tribal species). And apparantly also responsable for the "older you are the uglier your babies are" observation (though I've yet to see any "scientific evicence" for the observation ;-)

Another is chemicals in our environment effecting development at various stages of our life. Usually this is related to age with the greatest sensitivity being shown when cell division is more visually obvious.

Another being certain diseases that cause permanent changes.

What I must admit I'm curious about but have not seen much evidence/thinking/speculation on is when you get an organ transplant. Obviously if I have an injury of sufficient severity I will get a blood transfusion which means for a while I will if I leave a blood trace leave a mixture of DNA, but what about something more major such as bone marrow or liver what happens over time...

BPMarch 30, 2014 9:13 AM

I'm beginning to wonder if my giving up my DNA for my cousin's geneaelogy project. But he did publish a book, only one reason I want to have encryption is my electronic copy tells me my evil ancestors owned slaves. And broke up families when a relative died. Pretty nasty stuff this innocent genealogy. I want to keep the darn electronic copy but I don't want the NSA fumbling around in my ancestor's history. Of course, if they really wanted to find out, they could buy my cousin's book. http://www.lulu.com/shop/pi-yarborough/echoes-from-ancestor-land/paperback/product-20683630.html

But then thinking aobut that gives me another reason to want encryption.I now know why government agencies want to keep 60 year old documents secret. As much as I admire Norway for that company that says Microsoft is really OK, it's the other software that you have to watch out for, my grandfather's intelligence community connections, which were so deep I took his whole collection of documents about his time with Signal Corps from 1928 on and then onto intelligence and a little cable to detect Soviet submarines with an undersea cable under the Norwegian sea make me wonder that maybe the NSA itself might ask me to encrypt. I'll be glad to give them the key. But not the contractors.

KnottWhittingleyMarch 30, 2014 1:28 PM

One example of developmental environment affecting facial structure is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome---if the spacing between your pupils is different from what the genetic model predicts, that may tell whoever's doing the analysis that your mom was probably an alcoholic while she was carrying you.

Another source of extra-genetic variation is race conditions in developmental processes. The rates of various processes are not precisely timed, and some are not controlled by synchronization variables. Which process flips a genetic switch first may determine subsequent developmental paths, with differences being amplified.

In effect, some race conditions and amplification act as random number generators, which is why even identical twins have different fingerprints.

Identical twins do tend to have more similar faces than fingerprints, so faces are probably less sensitive to simple races, but their similarity may depend partly on near-identical developmental environments. (E.g., what mom ate, drank, or smoked, or how she exerted or rested, when they were going through the same developmental phases at about the same times.)

It'd be interesting to do some IVF experiments with homozygotic embryos borne by different surrogate mothers, but might be hard to that get past ethics committees. (Maybe there's a natural experiment that bears on this, but I don't know what it is.)


Krzysztof SakrejdaMarch 30, 2014 2:51 PM

"Because people from Europe and Africa tend to have differently shaped faces, studying people with mixed ancestry increased the chances of finding genetic variants affecting facial structure."

This particular study design increases the chances of finding genetic variants relating to having (recent) African ancestry. I don't think we need to give police another error-prone way of doing that.

greenupMarch 31, 2014 4:32 PM

When looking at "The Faces of Meth", most of the faces show enough similarity that you can see how they are the same picture of the same person, but sometimes only with confirmation bias, and a series of intermediate-timeframe photos.

While there are algorithms to predict this distortion, if you only had dna from a crime scene, you wouldn't know whether or not it should be applied.

And that's only One chemical that people could be exposed to across their life. Maybe there's a causal relationship between orange juice and deep-set eyes that nobody has noticed before.

vas pupApril 1, 2014 8:41 AM

@Knott&Clive. You are right on multiple factors affecting face structure. That is why it should be taken into consideration with other features, e.g. eye color mapping particular gene + this method because eye color remains I guess the same after early childhood. Yeah, I know about color contact lenses and recent procedure for changing eye color (from dark to light, not vice versa). Conclusion: as all other biometrics, it has its own degree of confidence.

vas pupApril 10, 2014 9:02 AM

Very interesting link on robot recognizing human emotions and responding by 'own' emotions interactively:
http://www.dw.de/robots-with-feelings/av-17547632
Prospective for future security applications: mapping words and emotions at check points by robots and responding accordingly (flagging humans for additional scrutiny of particular subject), during interrogation (probing emotional response for sensitive subjects), psychological evaluation of security personal as additional objective tool, not as substitute.

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.