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Can You Rule Out Suspects Using Faces Drawn From DNA?

Take our quiz to see how police would use a virtual mug shot created based on crime scene DNA.

Sierra Bouzigard was 19 years old when she was murdered and left beaten beyond recognition by the side of a road in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Before she died, she fought back, scratching her attacker and leaving bits of skin containing her killer’s DNA underneath her fingernails.

Police are looking for the killer using that scrap of genetic material—but not the way you might think. In this case, the killer’s DNA didn’t match any suspects or criminal database, so scientists are using the DNA to assemble a high-tech version of a tried-and-true investigative tool: a sketch of the killer’s face.

(Read more in “How Science Is Putting a New Face on Crime Solving” in the July issue of National Geographic.)

The technology is called DNA phenotyping, and so far it can produce only a rough approximation based on genetic factors such as geographic ancestry, eye color, and the shapes of facial features.

Academic scientists including Mark Shriver, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University, pioneered DNA phenotyping, and today a company called Parabon NanoLabs is developing a tool for forensic use, called Snapshot. Parabon emphasizes that police would never rely upon a DNA-based image alone to identify a suspect, but that detective work combined with a suspect’s DNA can effectively narrow down the pool of suspects.

How hard is this to do? See for yourself. National Geographic worked with Parabon to develop a quiz using the DNA phenotype of Max Aguilera-Hellweg, the photographer for the July magazine feature on forensics. Parabon reverse-engineered Max’s face using his DNA profile, as the hypothetical “suspect” or target. Other National Geographic photographers stand in for the lineup along with a photo of the real Max.

So, can you identify Max from the photos below? Technically, no—DNA phenotypes are not accurate enough to make a positive identification. But they can be used to eliminate suspects whose genetic profile clearly differs from the one gleaned from DNA left at the crime scene.

So the proper forensic question is: Can you identify who is NOT Max?

Building a Face From DNA

Max Aguilera-Hellweg gave Parabon NanoLabs a DNA sample, which the company used to reconstruct his face using their Snapshot tool for DNA phenotyping. Below, you can learn how the tool works and see if you think any of the faces—all Nat Geo photographers—fit Max’s profile.

 

The Snapshot

 

The snapshot indicates that the subject is of European and Latino background, with fair to light brown skin, brown eyes, black or brown hair, and few freckles. DNA carries no information about age or body mass, so the snapshot shown is aged 25 with medium build.

 

Genomic Ancestry Proportion of DNA

Northern

Europe

37.6%

Southwestern

Europe

24.9

Central

America

21.7

Other

10.3

Western

Middle East

5.5

0%

100%

Degree of confidence

Skin color

42.2%

Fair

22.6

Very Fair

25.1

Light Brown

2.2

Brown

0

Dark Brown

Eye color

83.2

Brown

50.5

Hazel

0.5

Green

0.2

Blue

0

Black

Hair color

56

Black

42.3

Brown

0

Blonde

0

Red

Freckles

58.7

Zero

18.9

Few

8.8

Some

8.3

Many

Building a Face From DNA

Max Aguilera-Hellweg gave Parabon NanoLabs a DNA sample, which the company used to reconstruct his face using their Snapshot tool for DNA phenotyping. Below, you can learn how the tool works and see if you think any of the faces—all Nat Geo photographers—fit Max’s profile.

 

The Snapshot

The snapshot indicates that the subject is of European and Latino background, with fair to light brown skin, brown eyes, black or brown hair, and few freckles. DNA carries no information about age or body mass, so the snapshot shown is aged 25 with medium build.

 

Genomic Ancestry Proportion of DNA

Northern Europe

37.6%

Southwestern Europe

24.9

Central America

21.7

Western

Middle

East

5.5

Other

10.3

Eye color

Skin color

Hair color

Freckles

42.2%

83.2

56

58.7

Brown

Black

Zero

Fair

22.6

50.5

42.3

18.9

Few

Hazel

Brown

Very Fair

25.1

0.5

0

8.8

Light Brown

Green

Blonde

Some

2.2

0.2

0

8.3

Brown

Red

Many

Blue

0

0

Dark Brown

Black

0%

100%

Degree of confidence

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