Gene activity and digit structure determine fingerprint patterns

Fingerprint formation is initiated by a specific molecular process influenced by the anatomy of the developing hand, according to the results of the study led by researchers at the Roslin Institute.

Scientists have found out how fingerprints are formed, and how their unique features are formed in a new multidisciplinary study.

The ridges of fingerprints and their characteristic arches, loops and swirls are formed by a combination of molecular signals and the anatomy of developing fingers, research shows.

The many variables involved in the process give rise to the unique patterns found in each person, which aid our grip and help us experience textures. 

The results of the study, led by researchers at the Roslin Institute, could help in understanding health disorders, including congenital conditions, that affect the development of structures such as skin, hair and sweat glands.


Infinite variation

Scientists are fathoming the origin of fingerprints by studying the role of genes involved in this process using stem cell-derived organoids and mouse models in the laboratory.

As the team found, the initial stages of fingerprinting, when ripples appear in the outer layer of developing skin, are similar to those that occur when hair follicles begin to form and are controlled by a number of key genes.

These ridges form as a series of waves that spread from different parts of the developing finger to form the fingerprint pattern. The formation of these patterns is influenced by many factors, including the length of the fingers, the shape of the fingertips, and localised activity of genes. This results in an infinite variety of fingerprint patterns that can be generated.

The study, published in the journal Cell, was conducted in collaboration with colleagues from the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and China.

Insight from this work could help understand how structures of the skin, such as sweat glands and hair follicles, fail to form in individuals affected by disorders such as hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia.

Our findings show that distinctive, individual fingerprint patterns are formed by a molecular process driven by gene activity, and shaped by variations in the individual anatomy of our fingers. It is only through collaboration with mathematicians and engineers that this work was possible, highlighting the power of multidisciplinary science.