On Monday, Dr. J. Craig Venter, regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century, delivered a lecture at Washington State University. During the lecture, Venter talked about some of the most exciting projects he and colleagues are involved in. If you don’t know who Venter is, I’ll lend you a hand. He’s the pioneer who made the first synthetic life form; invested $100 million to race the government and sequence a human genome, which turned out to be his own; currently planning ‘biological teleportation’ (imagine printing life, antibiotics, whatever with a protein 3D printer, on Earth, Mars, anywhere — that’s the idea) and the recipient of countless awards. His hour-long lecture is packed with gems, wisdom and mind-bending findings from science, but maybe the most groundbreaking project Verter shared had to do with using one’s genome to predict what your face must look like, or even the sound of your voice! The results speak for themselves — just check out the video below.
The way it works is Venter and colleagues have found a way to isolate those set of genes that determine our appearance. DNA samples from thousands of people were taken, which were then sequenced and correlated with 3D models of the volunteers’ faces.
“We can now predict eye colour better than people can self describe it. There’s an 80% difference between the left and right eye that they’re not even aware of,” Venter said during the lecture
“It’s totally logical that your genome predicts exactly what we look like,” he added.
Logical indeed — it’s just that we weren’t expecting it this soon. Personally, I’m not even sure what he’s showing here (which is freaking amazing) is as precise as Venter might want us to think. Facial features may be shaped by hundreds or thousands of genes — each with very tiny effects.Hair, eye and skin color, as well as ethnic background, are relatively easy to pin down. But the genetic roots of other traits, such as height and face shape, are scattered throughout people’s DNA like dandelion seeds in the wind. If Venter managed to pull this off, well cheers!
If it’s as precise and effective as Venter says it is, than this tech can transform forensics, on one hand. It could also usher in a crazy age in which every person has his DNA in a database — information on everything that nature offered you when you entered this world.
“The forensic applications of this are , obviously, tremendous. From a DNA sample right now we use statistics to see whether it matches someone perhaps who committed a rape. But we’re limited by a DNA database. We use these images we have, at least, to scan the whole internet. We use these image scanners and then we use them to find that person on the internet.”
“We can also predict what a couple’s child looks like roughly at age 18. The genome predicts what a person looks like post-puberty but we now have software that can age or de-age photos.”
“It’s harder to predict voice from the genome. From a digital recording of your voice we can tell whether it’s male or female, and we can predict your age highly accurately. Now we can predict your height all from a voice recording. We’re finding a correlation between voice and face shape.”
Not coincidentally, a genome bank is the object of Venter’s latest business venture: Human Longevity Inc. (HLI), a startup the pioneering American inventor founded 18 months ago. Already, HLI is considered the world’s largest genome sequencing lab. Most recently, HLI partnered with South African health insurers to sequence the medically important genes of its clients for just $250. The client would then receive a list of diseases or afflictions that he risks developing in the course of life. Sounds quite the business – the African insurer can better assess its clients and decide who can be insured and on what terms, while HLI is gaining a massive genetic database which it can then use to fine-tune its projects, especially considering African genomes are lacking in the global DNA sequence bank.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.