Science | Junk genes revealed to enhance facial beauty

The characteristics of beauty are being embraced by scientists establishing the details of the blueprint that embodies good looks.  Scientists have pinpointed 4,000 small DNA regions in the genome that influence facial features.

Beauty and symmetry have historically been highlighted and, with novel insight into this junk DNA, scientists are suggesting that these segments do literally enhance beauty. Imagine the work of a plastic surgeon, a millimetre adjustment can transform the perception of physical beauty; likewise, the tiniest alteration in your enhancers produces subtle, yet significant results.

How do we know that enhancers influence face shape? The research group, led by Axel Visel at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, built up a three-dimensional embryo mouse model to visually compare any differences in gene expression. Subsequently, by engineering mouse groups lacking an enhancer, the team were able to comparatively examine the results using a control. Their findings illustrated that 120 enhancers were active in the regions of the developing face. Moreover, they found that deleting one enhancer changed the skull to be broader and shorter, whilst also elongating the face. Since the majority of these enhancer regions are shared by humans, it is intuitive that the sequences will exhibit similar face-shaping effects when investigated in human models.

Faces vary tremendously between individuals, so how do these findings help us decipher why? In essence, as you can see among relatives, genetics greatly influence the development of a person’s face shape. Regardless, geneticists only know a handful of genes that contribute. With this work, it is hoped that, by studying the face variation in quintessential people, it would enable geneticists to explore possible mutations in enhancers that influence the development of birth defects, such as a lip cleft or palate. Visel acknowledges that, although pre-emptive interventions are overly ambitious at this time, continuing with research in this area presents the opportunity to eventually predict and potentially disrupt the development of embryonic facial deformities.

Beauty inspires; scientific understanding of the essence of beautiful manifestations, in nature, is something of exquisite intrigue and influences experimental endeavours. Visel’s work has highlighted that particular genetic segments and switches in expression eventually influence beauty by affecting craniofacial development. Reflecting on his work Visel elaborated that there must be a “blueprint that defines what our face looks like” and his contributing research seeks to “find out how these instructions for building the human face are embedded in human DNA.” Thus, although facial developments are highly inheritable, investigations into the genetics of facial architecture are, subtly, decoding the nuances of beauty.


Sofia Popov

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