How Do Genes Shape Your Face? Rodent Facial Development May Reveal A Lot About Our Own

Geneticists Create Good-Looking, and not-so-Attractive Mice

By Gabrielle Jonas on October 25, 2013 3:58 PM EDT

What Makes a Mouse Face Look the Way it Does?
We're finding out more about the genetic instructions that say whether a mouse is a frog or a prince (Photo: Wikipedia)

The genetic directions for building a face just got a little less mysterious, thanks to findings by an international team probing into the genetics of mouse faces.

The American component of the team, working at the Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, have identified thousands of small regions of DNA that direct how facial features develop in mice, shedding light on how the human face develops in the womb. The team has published the results in Friday's issue of Science Magazine.

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"We're trying to find out how these instructions for building the human face are embedded in human DNA," Professor Axel Visel of the DOE JGI, told the told BBC News.

The DOE JGI has also been working with an international group of institutions belonging to the FaceBase Consortium. https://www.facebase.org/node/278 Its mission is all in the trippy name.  Together, they've discovered about 4,000 short stretches of DNA, or "enhancers" that have a say in how a mouse face will look.

The enhancers switch genes on and off, determining whether a mouse will be handsome, or not so much, by rodent standards.

Removal of some of those enhancers have produced mouse faces that are a little off, Visel said. "These mice looked pretty normal, but it is really hard for humans to see differences in the face of mice."

But by using CT scans to compare the altered, or transgenic mice with unmodified mice, the researchers found that the altered mice developed longer or shorter skulls, or wider or narrower faces, than the other, more beauteous mice.

The days of being able to predict a human face while still in the womb are a long way off, Visel told the BBC. He's more interested in using the information one day to shed light on such potentially devastating facial cranio-birth defects such as cleft of the lip and palate.

Originally established to work on the Human Genome Project, first funded in the late 1880's, its job description was redefined in 2004 after the entire human genome was charted.  There are approximately 20,500 genes in human beings, the same range as in mice. The DOE JGI has since shifted its focus to the non-human components of the biosphere. The DOE JGI completely sequenced  the first tree, a cottonwood, in 2006. Its also published the genome sequences of sorghum; microbes that clean up sites contaminated with radioactive or toxic compounds; and algae involved in the global carbon cycle being used to track the effects of climate change.

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