Understanding the genes that determine human facial shape could one day provide valuable information about person's appearance using just their DNA.
The discovery of five genes involved in facial form could have applications in forensics, say the authors of a study.
Virtually nothing was known about the genes responsible for facial shape in humans.
The study of almost 10,000 individuals is published in Plos Genetics.
Lead author Manfred Kayser from the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said: "These are exciting first results that mark the beginning of the genetic understanding of human facial morphology.
"Perhaps some time it will be possible to draw a phantom portrait of a person solely from his or her DNA left behind, which provides interesting applications such as in forensics."
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of people's heads together with portrait photographs to map facial landmarks, from which facial distances were estimated.
|MRI images were used to quantify the metrics of face shape ahead of the genetic study|
They then conducted what is known as a genome-wide association study, which is designed to search for small genetic variations that occur more frequently in people with particular facial types.
Prof Kayser and his colleagues identified five candidate genes associated with different facial shapes - known as PRDM16, PAX3, TP63, C5orf50, and COL17A1.
These associations mean the likelihood of a certain face shape can be estimated, and a full DNA-to-portrait mapping still remains a distant prospect.
But together with recent findings that suggest DNA can also be used to predict hair and eye color and a 2010 study in which age can be inferred from blood, forensics is set to add a suite of powerful new DNA-based tools to its arsenal.