For some people, having a pretty face is like having a winning lottery ticket you can cash again and again.
If they commit a crime, they may be viewed less harshly and may even have bail set at a lower amount.
Standards of beauty can of course change depending on the era and the culture or the person. After all, there is the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” for a reason. But it is also true that some people’s appearance is so physically attractive to others, they can benefit from it.
So, can you find what genetically makes a person attractive?
Right now, scientists understand very little about what makes a person attractive — at least when it comes to their genes.
But a new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has uncovered some of the genetics behind beauty.
In a study published this month in PLOS Genetics, lead author Qiongshi Lu, assistant professor in the department of statistics at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his colleagues used attractiveness scores to locate and identify several genes correlated to facial attractiveness in 4,383 individuals.
In order to rate attractiveness, the researchers asked volunteers, or “coders,” to score yearbook photos of individuals on a scale from “not at all attractive” to “extremely attractive.” Each coder looked at 12 photos.
The attractiveness scores in hand, the researchers then compared the coders’ rating scores to each person’s genetic makeup, looking for correlations or crossover genes.
Amid that genetic information they found a “handful of candidate genes.”
They also found that those genes varied by sex.
In females, the genetic variations that most closely related to facial attractiveness were linked to genes that affect body mass, or the measure of a person’s weight and height.
In males, the genetic variations were linked to genes that affect blood cholesterol levels.
The study authors point out that research has found blood cholesterol levels play a role “in the synthesis of testosterone and other steroid hormones.” That may help explain why attractiveness scores were tied to a cholesterol gene.
The correlation between a female’s body mass and attractiveness, however, points to one of the limitations of the study: Researchers don’t yet understand the roles of age, physical body shape, facial expression, and makeup in the perception of attractiveness.
Indeed, for every promising correlation they found, unanswered questions remain.
“Similar to many other human traits, there is not a ‘master gene’ that determines a person’s attractiveness,” Lu said in a statement. “Instead, it is most likely associated with a large number of genetic components with weak effects.”
The researchers said they also recognize their study is based on a racially and ethnically homogenous group of people of about the same age and background — that is, mainly white Midwestern American college students of European ancestry.
The group is also small. Roughly 4,400 people is considered a moderate sample size.
And the researchers didn’t replicate their findings with any external cohort, or group of people. “External replication and validation are critical steps in studies of complex trait genetics,” the authors wrote in the study.
Genes alone don’t tell a whole picture about attractiveness. A person’s lifestyle can greatly influence that, says Dr. Charlie Chen, a plastic surgeon with experience in gene therapy research.
“Many features have environmental factors, such as smoking or diet, that change the results of our looks, like facial skin textures,” he said.
Another complication is that beauty ideals can change over time or in different cultures.
But this search for attractiveness genes might underpin something that other areas of genetic research are wondering and attempting: Can we eventually manipulate or change genes to boost the chances of attractiveness?
Perhaps, Chen says, but not anytime soon.
“At this point, we can now identify parts of the gene that determine or are associated with certain physical or hormonal traits. These traits are likely multifactorial, so there’s not a single gene that can be switched on or off,” he said.
Chen explains this may be the next frontier in beauty.
“The danger is certainly being able to manually manipulate these genes, perhaps even selecting certain genes of embryos before birth,” Chen said. “This ability is still far away, perhaps decades, but it is certainly a caution as we progress in our scientific understanding of beauty.”
Of course, attractiveness is an ever-evolving definition, one that may be more primal than superficial.
“Theoretically speaking, sexual selection’s pretty well established,” said Andrew Neff, PhD, a neuroscientist specializing in molecular and cellular biology and managing director of Golgi Productions.
“Animals evolve not just for fitness but for any arbitrary reason that enhances their reproduction chances. If sexual selection exists, and it’s driven by genetics, there has to be some underlying genes, and this study shows some prime candidates,” Neff said.
While this study was a “successful attempt to pin down genetic components of human facial attractiveness,” the researchers wrote, it could springboard many future areas of research.
Attractiveness is well understood to be a benefit in life. It can help people find jobs, earn more money, and even have a better social and dating life.
But until now, researchers had very little understanding of how physical attractiveness related to genes.
Although this study was limited in scope and size, it provides interesting insight into what people view as attractive and what that might say about DNA.