Picture This

Margaret Herrell, what did you look like?

Margaret died in 1892, but we don’t have a photo of her nor of her second husband Joseph Preston Bolton who died in 1887.  Her son, my great-grandfather, Joseph “Dode” Bolton died in 1920 and we don’t have a picture of him either, or his wife, Margaret Claxton/Clarkson who died just days later in the flu epidemic.  The closest I can get is this photo of Margaret Herrell’s daughter.

Smith-Martin

Pleasant Smith and Surelda Martin (1836-1890) – daughter of my ancestor Margaret Herrell with her first husband, Anson Cook Martin – Hancock County, Tennessee.

Today, there was an article in “abroad in the yard” by Lee Rimmer that discussed an academic paper published in PLOS Genetics this week by Liu et al titled “A Genome-Wide Association Study Identifies 5 Loci Influencing Facial Morphology in Europeans.”

We all know that facial characteristics are genetic.  Identical twins look more alike that fraternal twins, and fraternal twins look more alike that cousins or half-siblings.  But exactly which genes contribute to that structural composition of faces is unknown, or has been until now.  This recent paper identifies 5 genes that influence to some extent the morphology of the face by identifying specific facial landmarks and the genes that influence them.  Researchers expect to find hundreds or thousands more, but many of these may play small roles.

Already people are talking about forensic applications where from a drop of blood, a hair, spit or other body fluids or tissues, one could sequence the DNA, then create a 3D profile or image of the perpetrator of the crime.  Indeed, that is the holy grail of forensic genetics.

And yes, it’s a long way in the future.  However, the very definition of “long way” is certainly open to debate.  We’ve covered genetic ground in the past decade alone that we never thought possible.

This (future) application has other possibilities for genealogists.  We already know how to phase data, to attribute it to one parent or the other.  Using those and other comparative and triangulation tools, we also know how to determine genetic sequences that we share inherited from specific ancestors.  In fact, once that genetic segment is identified as inherited from a particular ancestral line, might it be possible in the future to indeed, reassemble enough of the DNA of that ancestor (by knowing the genes involved and the descendants who carry those genes today) to create an image of that long dead ancestor?

Maybe one day, not terribly far in the future, we’ll be able to submit a list of segments of DNA to a special processing “studio” online, that will in return provide us with what our ancestor looked like, long before the advent of cameras when only the images of royalty were preserved.  And maybe, just maybe, if you tell them the place and time your ancestor was born, and his or her occupation, if you know, you’ll also receive the “photo” of your ancestor dressed in period clothes and hairstyle.

And while it might not be exact, just like this “cleaned up” photo isn’t exact from an  original, shown below, it’s most assuredly better than nothing – and in that image we can certainly see something very similar to our ancestor – and in them we can see ourselves.

Smith-Martin orig

Let’s hope that this big genealogical dream of what today seems impossible happens in our lifetime so that we can complete our family tree by recreating images of ancestors from long ago.  Indeed, how much closer could one feel to an ancestor than to have their image resurrected by the DNA, their DNA, carried by their descendants. And what an incredible crowdsourcing project – it may take a virtual genealogical village.

8 thoughts on “Picture This

  1. WoW! Roberta thanks for keep us “in the know” with this type of information. Just to let you know many people are dropping your name, like Terry Barton who I just heard speak in SC. He mentioned you because of your “Lost Tribes” research and I added info about all you other work…You’re the Best!

  2. Hi Roberta
    Lee Rimmer from Abroad in the Yard here. I was delighted to get a link back from such a respected source! I thoroughly enjoyed your take on this. Congratulations on hosting a fantastic blog – something to aspire to. Added you to my ‘favourites’.

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