Science News – November 14, 2013


For years, scientists have known that non-coding DNA is part of the genome that does not directly determine physical features. A new study led by Axel Visel at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s genomics division, however, finds that non-coding DNA plays a role in fine tuning facial features in mice.


Generally, DNA provides our genetic blueprint; certain parts of DNA have different roles. Specific sequences of DNA, commonly called genes, code our recognizable facial features such as eye color, nose size and skin pigmentation. Between these genes are long sequences of non-coding DNA. For many years, its biological function has been unknown.


Visel and his group have conducted a pioneering study: after intentionally knocking out certain sequences of non-coding DNA, they measured the impact of certain facial features, such as facial length and width in mice. As a result, they identified more than 4,000 small regions of non-coding DNA that work as “transcriptional enhancers” that amplify specific facial feature genes.


Although the non-coding DNA may enhance how specific genes are expressed, the transcription enhancers do not independently contain identifying information. They only alter how the identifying genes are displayed.


This research is particularly interesting within forensic science because the small differences between non-coding DNA sequences within populations is used in the DNA testing that

helps exonerate wrongly convicted people and identify true perpetrators

. It also raises a concern, especially in the area of biometrics.


While Visel’s findings demonstrate that non-coding DNA enhancers play a prominent role in how genetic information is translated into facial features, developing facial reconstructions solely from coding genes, as written about in a

previous “Science Thursday” blog post

, may prove impossible. Even though the specific traits can be identified from coding DNA sequences, the lack of information regarding the enhancers could create an open-ended picture with too many uncertainties. More research, similar to that conducted by Visel, is necessary to understand the limits of biometric methodologies before widespread adoption.


To learn more about the work of Axel Visel at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, check out:

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