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Lip Prints: Something Old, Something New

January 14, 2010

Lower lip whorlsIn the 1930s, the pioneering criminologist Edmund Locard – “The French Sherlock Holmes” – famously declared, “Every contact leaves a trace.” Among the crime-scene contacts that Locard suggested might be used to uniquely identify a thief were the lip prints left behind on a drinking glass or a cigarette butt snuffed out in an ashtray.  While cheiloscopy - the scientific study of lip prints – has captured the imagination of many a detective, it remains a forensic work in progress in need of standardized methodologies to systematize the collection and categorization of the uniquely patterned grooves, furrows, and wrinkles that comprise a human lip print. But cheiloscopic studies have seeded a few interesting biological leads.  None more intriguing than preliminary data from the 1970s that showed roughly 60 percent of the relatives of babies born with nonsyndromic cleft lip and/or palate had whorls, or distinctive circular patterns, present on their lower lip.  Just 15 percent of those with no history of the condition had whorls.  These data led to speculation that the whorls might be superficial pits in the lower lip that are associated with nonsyndromic cleft lip and/or palate.  If further study were to support these earlier data, whorl patterns could be included as a distinctive clinical phenotype, or manifestation, of nonsyndromic cleft lip and/or palate.  Likewise, lip whorls patterns could be incorporated clinically to calculate a couple’s risk of having children with the condition. 

In the December issue of the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A, a team of NIDCR grantees and colleagues update this thirty-year-old finding with the investigative benefits of today’s technology.  Their data offer a somewhat mixed, but a largely supportive international snapshot.  In the study, the researchers first developed standardized protocols to collect, rate, and analyze the lip print data.  They then collected lip prints from 450 people (113 unrelated people with nonsyndromic cleft lip and/or palate, 198 unrelated non-cleft family members, and 142 unrelated controls).  Participants lived in the United States, Argentina, and Hungary.  In the United States, the scientists found that the narrowly defined, or definite, whorls were fivefold more common in the cleft families (14.8 percent of those with cleft lip and/or palate and 13.2 percent of their family members) than in the control group (2.3 percent).   In Argentina, however, definite whorls were more common among those with cleft lip and/or palate (32.3 percent) than their unaffected relatives (10.9 percent).  No definite lip whorls were found in Hungary.  A broader international comparison wasn’t possible because controls did not participate in Argentina or Hungary.


  • Whorl Patterns on the Lower Lip are Associated with Nonsyndromic Cleft Lip With or Without Cleft Palate, Neiswanger K et al. Am J Med Genet Part A 2009, December; 149A:2673-2679.


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This page last updated: February 26, 2014