Face shape is largely determined by genetics, yet no two faces are entirely alike. How do genes bring about faces with subtle differences while avoiding dramatic disruptions and facial malformations such as cleft lip and palate? The answer may be in the "junk DNA," a new study has found.
Noncoding DNA, sometimes called junk DNA, refers to sequences in a genome that don't produce proteins, some of which are thought to have no known biological function.
Studying mice, researchers identified more than 4,000 small regions in the genome that are likely a type of noncoding DNA called enhancers, which amplify the expression of a gene. In this case, these regions were active while the face of a mouse embryo developed, according to the study, detailed in the Oct. 25 issue of the journal Science.
Most of these enhancer sequences are found in humans as well, so it is likely that they have similar face-shaping functions in humans, the researchers said. (5 Face-Shaping Genes Identified)
"Our results suggest it is likely there are thousands of enhancers in the human genome that are somehow involved in craniofacial development," study researcher Axel Visel, a geneticist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's genomics division, said in a statement. "We don't know yet what all of these enhancers do, but we do know that they are out there and they are important for craniofacial development."