Bioethics Blogs

DNA Phenotyping and Baby’s First Portrait

Some researchers are at work generating images of people’s faces by relying on DNA samples alone, in a process known as DNA phenotyping. The process involves linking genetic traits and their typical manifestations in traits such as eye color, hair color, and features associated with ancestry. The research is in its early stages, and DNA does its work only in the context of developmental effects, so the facial images are not exact matches, but they are often within the ballpark.

Right now, the interest in DNA phenotyping is mostly forensic, of interest to police agencies trying to identify people who have left no trace of themselves at a crime scene other than blood, semen, or other bodily substance. To help identify suspects through a visual image, private companies already market DNA phenotyping to various police agencies around the country.

It is unlikely that DNA phenotyping will remain of interest only to the law. I expect that some prospective parents might be interested in taking embryonic or fetal DNA to produce a predictive phenotype of what their child might look like as an adult. Will the child look more like the father or the mother? Will the child inherit the father’s generously sized ears or maybe the mother’s aquiline nose? What will its eye and hair color be? Will there be any asymmetry in the child’s face? And what about other body traits? How tall is the child likely to be?

Visual answers to these questions will all depend on the extent to which researchers can meaningfully link genetics to expected physical traits and in a way that is not disturbed by the “noise” of developmental variation.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.