Nevertheless, pinning down the effects of genes that influence body development is the key to predicting a specific individual’s looks. Shriver is studying populations in Europe and mixed-race groups elsewhere in the hope that correlating a Gallic nose or smiling Irish eyes with genes that influence their distinctive shapes may begin to crack the code the body uses to build a specific feature. He is even exposing inch-square patches of volunteers’ skin to ultraviolet light to gauge the range of skin shades and tones possible for people with various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Skin-deep is as far as a DNA sketch should go, according to some bioethicists. The ancient Greenlander also had an elevated risk for hypertension and diabetes. A modern all-points bulletin could, in principle, describe a suspect’s pigmentation, ancestry, and higher-than-average likelihood of being obese, a smoker, alcoholic or just depressed. “I think there are some valid ethical issues around this kind of work,” Shriver remarks.
Practical considerations may be what delays deployment of any but the simplest forensic kits, though. “The forensic field is very, very conservative,” Podini says, “so before you actually apply something to casework, it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt as something that works well, is reliable and is accepted by the scientific community.”
This article was originally published with the title Portrait in DNA.