Scientists reveal why you have (or have not) a pretty face


Creative commons image via flickr user stevendepolo

Ever wonder what exactly separates the face of a George Clooney or Natalie Portman from the rest of us mere mortals? Well, according to scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the answer lies in thousands and thousands of so-called “gene enhancers”, which act to amplify the expression of a specific gene. They may also hold clues to facial deformities like cleft palates.

The team of researchers found the specific gene, or transcriptional, enhancers by altering the facial features of mice while they were still in the embryo. They three genetic switches from the mice’s DNA and used CT scans to compare the skulls of the genetically modified mice to the unmodified ones. Granted, there’s a world of difference between a mouse’s face and a human’s (at least hopefully), but the researchers believe that the human face should develop the same way.

It was only recently that the importance of transcriptional enhancers, (sometimes referred to incorrectly as “junk DNA”) was considered in the study of genetic development. Before this research, the genetic drivers of normal facial variation — those small differences that make each of us unique — have been poorly understood.

“Our results also offer an opportunity for human geneticists to look for mutations specifically in enhancers that may play a role in birth defects, which in turn may help to develop better diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.”

— Lead researcher Dr. Alex Visell

But if you think this breakthrough could lead to us all looking like Natalie Portman or George Clooney, don’t hold your breath. According to the BBC, it’s unlikely that parents will be able to alter their progeny’s genome to change the way their child looks. At least in the near future.

H/T Marc Sollinger