Succession Science: Are Fingerprint Patterns Inherited?
Have you ever seen a boy who looked just like his father when he was younger? We can often tell that two people are related because they have several similar physical traits. This is because children receive half of their DNA (i.e., their genetic blueprints) from each parent. What about fingerprints – are they an inherited trait? Fingerprints are used to identify people because each person’s fingerprints are unique, but people can have similar fingerprint patterns. This Father’s Day, you could do this activity with your family to investigate whether fingerprint patterns are random or influenced by genetics. You’ll be able to see if your fingerprint pattern is just one more trait that you can thank your father for giving you.
During weeks 10 through 24 of gestation, ridges form on the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) on the fingertips of the fetus. The pattern that these ridges make is known as a fingerprint. Fingerprints are static and do not change with age, so an individual will have the same fingerprint from infancy to adulthood. The pattern changes size, but not shape, as the person grows. (To get a better idea of how that works, you can model the change in size by inking your fingerprint onto a balloon and then blowing up the balloon.) Since each person has unique fingerprints that do not change over time, they can be used for identification. For example, police use fingerprints to determine whether a particular individual has been at a crime scene.
Although the exact number, shape and spacing of the ridges changes from person to person, fingerprints can be sorted into three general categories based on their pattern type: loop, arch and whorl.
- A least one pair of parents and their genetic son(s) or daughter(s). The more members of the nuclear family that are available, the better the results will be.
- Optional: Magnifying glass
- Look at some drawings or pictures of the three basic fingerprint pattern types: loop, arch and whorl. In a loop pattern, the ridges enter from either side, curve up and then exit usually from the same side they entered. In a whorl pattern, the ridges are usually circular. In an arch pattern, the ridges enter from one side, make a small rise in the center and exit generally on the opposite side.
- Become familiar with what the different types look like so you can readily identify them. Note that there is some variation on these basic types, such as the “tented arch,” which looks like a more sharply curved version of the typical arch.
- Gather family members together so that you can look at their fingerprints as a group.
- One at a time, look at each person’s right index finger where their fingerprint is. By looking at the pattern on the finger, characterize the pattern as a whorl, arch or loop. You could use a magnifying glass to look at their finger more closely. What type of fingerprint pattern do they have?
- Look at the fingerprint pattern of other family members, one at a time, and characterize each as one of the three basic patterns. What type of fingerprint patterns do other family members have? Do you see any trends?
- Overall, does it look like fingerprint patterns are inherited? In other words, did siblings usually have the same fingerprint pattern, and did people have fingerprint patterns in common with their parents?
Observations and Results
Did you see some examples of fingerprint patterns being inherited?
There is an inheritance component to fingerprint patterns, but the genetics of how they are inherited are complicated (multiple genes are involved) and fingerprints are also affected by a person’s environment while developing in the womb. Because of this, you may have seen some examples of fingerprint patterns likely being inherited (such as a father having the same pattern type as his son or daughter), but this may not have always been the case for individuals you know to be closely related. To more clearly see how fingerprint patterns are inherited, you would need to use a much larger sample size, such as described in the first “Extra” step. Because each person’s fingerprints are unique, and not even identical twins – who share the same DNA – have identical fingerprints, this also shows that fingerprints are not completely controlled by genetics.
Ask an Expert
- Are one's fingerprints similar to those of his or her parents in any discernable way?, from Scientific American
- The inheritance of fingerprint patterns, from BBC
- Fun, Science Activities for You and Your Family, from Science Buddies
- Are Fingerprint Patterns Inherited?, from Science Buddies