Are fingerprints determined by genetics?
Each person’s fingerprints are unique, which is why they have long been used as a way to identify individuals. Surprisingly little is known about the factors that influence a person’s fingerprint patterns. Like many other complex traits, studies suggest that both genetic and environmental factors play a role.
A person’s fingerprints are based on the patterns of skin ridges (called dermatoglyphs) on the pads of the fingers. These ridges are also present on the toes, the palms of the hands, and the soles of the feet. Although the basic whorl, arch, and loop patterns may be similar, the details of the patterns are specific to each individual.
Dermatoglyphs develop before birth and remain the same throughout life. The ridges begin to develop during the third month of fetal development, and they are fully formed by the sixth month. The function of these ridges is not entirely clear, but they likely increase sensitivity to touch.
The basic size, shape, and spacing of dermatoglyphs appear to be influenced by genetic factors. Studies suggest that multiple genes are involved, so the inheritance pattern is not straightforward. Genes that control the development of the various layers of skin, as well as the muscles, fat, and blood vessels underneath the skin, may all play a role in determining the pattern of ridges. The finer details of the patterns of skin ridges are influenced by other factors during fetal development, including the environment inside the womb. These developmental factors cause each person’s dermatoglyphs to be different from everyone else’s. Even identical twins, who have the same DNA, have different fingerprints.
Few genes involved in dermatoglyph formation have been identified. Rare diseases characterized by abnormal or absent dermatoglyphs provide some clues as to their genetic basis. For example, a condition known as adermatoglyphia is characterized by an absence of dermatoglyphs, sometimes with other abnormalities of the skin. Adermatoglyphia is caused by mutations in a gene called SMARCAD1. Although this gene is clearly important for the formation of dermatoglyphs, its role in their development is unclear.
To find out more about the influence of genetics on the formation of fingerprints:
Detailed information about
fingerprints is available from the Association of Forensic Science Providers.
The UCSB Science Line from the University of California, Santa Barbara provides information about how fingerprints are
The Mad Sci Network offers many Q&As related to
fingerprints, including the genetics and development of dermatoglyphs. The questions were asked by students and answered by scientists.
This article from Science Magazine discusses the case of a woman with
OMIM.org provides more detailed genetic information about
dermatoglyphs and adermatoglyphia.
Scientific journal articles for further reading:
Burger B, Fuchs D, Sprecher E, Itin P. The immigration delay disease: adermatoglyphia-inherited absence of epidermal ridges. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2011 May;64(5):974-80. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2009.11.013. Epub 2010 Jul 8.PMID
Nousbeck J, Burger B, Fuchs-Telem D, Pavlovsky M, Fenig S, Sarig O, Itin P, Sprecher E. A mutation in a skin-specific isoform of SMARCAD1 causes autosomal-dominant adermatoglyphia. Am J Hum Genet. 2011 Aug 12;89(2):302-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2011.07.004. Epub 2011 Aug 4. PMID
21820097. Free full-text available from PubMed Central: PMC3155166.
Warman PH, Ennos AR. Fingerprints are unlikely to increase the friction of primate fingerpads. J Exp Biol. 2009 Jul;212(Pt 13):2016-22. doi: 10.1242/jeb.028977. PMID
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