- Margarita Rodriguez
- BBC News World
Agnes was traveling by train when a man approached her and started talking about subjects she had no idea about. The subject soon realized that “she was not who he thought she was”. And it didn’t take long for him to say that she knew his doppelgangera German term for “double”.
Agnes was encouraged to meet her train partner’s friend and, via Facebook, saw Ester. Later, they met in person.
“We hit it off really well right away. It’s not just our looks, but our personalities are similar too.”
For Esther, “it’s strange and wonderful to see part of you in someone else.”
But what makes the experience so special is that she and the doppelganger are similar in character and interests. “We have the same tastes: music, clothes, tattoos.”
When Ester was 32 and Agnes was 28, they posed for François Brunelle, who shared the story of the two Dutch women with BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service.
The Canadian photographer recalls that, when he saw them, he felt “very happy to see how much they looked alike”.
The artist has spent years portraying people, in different parts of the planet, who are not related and look a lot alike.
This is how, in the image below, he photographed Ester and Agnes in 2015.
Agnes and Ester are just two of hundreds of participants in Brunelle’s project, “I’m not a doppelganger!”.
Perhaps you have already seen it on social media, as you also came across one of the hundreds of articles on the internet with photos of non-famous people who look like public figures or celebrities very similar to each other.
In fact, one such comparison that has become popular in recent years is that of the founder of the Ferrari team, the Italian Enzo Ferrari, and that of the German football player of Turkish origin, Mesut Ozil.
What Brunelle may not have imagined when she started her project is that it would become the basis for pioneering scientific research.
He was contacted by a group of experts at the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute in Barcelona, Spain, who are trying to understand the physical similarities between individuals who have no family ties.
Manel Esteller, director of the institute and professor of genetics at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Barcelona, led the study and told BBC News Mundo about the fascinating findings.
In August, the results of the research, which began in 2016, were published in the scientific journal Cell Reports.
The authors explained that the study, at a molecular level, aimed to “characterize random humans who objectively shared facial features.”
These are individuals who, because of their “high resemblance”, are colloquially called doubles.
The researchers contacted Brunelle and the 32 volunteer pairs who participated in their project.
The photos of their faces were analyzed with three facial recognition software, such as those used, for example, in airports, in the police or to unlock cell phones.
“These are programs that tell you how similar one face is compared to another,” explained Esteller.
In twins, for example, the similarity detected by these programs reaches 90%-100%.
In the study, they were used to determine the degree of “similarity” of faces and found “a high rate”.
“The number of pairs that were correlated by at least two programs was very high (75% similarity out of 25 of 32),” the institute said in a statement.
According to Esteller, this is “very close to the human ability to recognize identical twins.”
In half of the pairs, all three programs found correlations, that is, 16 extremely similar pairs.
The researchers analyzed “the biological material” of the participants, something that was a little “complicated” to obtain because they were “in different countries”, the doctor said.
Thus, DNA samples from saliva were collected and analyzed.
“We study this biological material, the genome and two other components: the epigenome, which are like chemical marks that control DNA, and also the microbiome, the type of viruses and bacteria we have.”
The genome, genetics, was what ended up uniting “the couples”, while epigenetics and the microbiome – aspects related to the environment – distanced them.
“What the study is showing is that the most important thing in these cases is that (the pairs) have similar genetics, a similar DNA sequence, and (the similarity) is not because they have families in common, there is no relationship between them. “
“It’s because chance, of course, ended up creating identical DNA sequences or areas for these people.”
In fact, the researchers went back “centuries and centuries” in the volunteers’ family history and “did not find any common relatives between them.”
The sequences mentioned by the specialist are decisive in the formation of the characteristic aspects of our face.
The fact that two people look so much alike is “like playing the lottery”: it is very difficult for you to win the prize, but you can be lucky.
“These two people, despite not being related, end up having genetic variants that give them the same shape.” That is, certain characteristics of their DNA are similar.
Imagine that both people share a variant that makes their eyebrows thicker, another that makes their lips thicker, another that makes them have a certain type of chin, and so on.
“Together, all these variants make their faces look alike. The similarity can be expressed as a percentage and has to do precisely with the different degrees to which the genetic variants are shared.”
beyond the physical
This study is groundbreaking in the field of genetics because, as Sarah Kuta points out in the Smithsonian journal, while “it might seem obvious that people with similar facial features would also have some of the same DNA, no one has scientifically proven this until now.”
But there is also something that goes beyond the physical. Volunteers were asked to fill out a questionnaire with more than 60 questions about their lifestyle habits “to see if they were similar in that too, and in some cases there were similarities,” the professor said.
Other physical aspects such as weight, age and height were also analyzed. The study found that among the 16 very similar couples, “many were of similar weights, and analysis of their biometrics and lifestyle factors also showed that there were similarities.”
“Behavioral traits such as smoking and educational attainment were correlated in similar pairs, suggesting that shared genetic variation is related not only to physical appearance, but may also influence common habits and behaviors,” the statement said.
One of the aspects that Esteller would like to deepen with this research is its potential application in Biomedicine.
“We have identified genes and their variants that are important in determining the shape of the face and, therefore, the nose, mouth, forehead, ears, and which may also be involved in pathologies. From a face, we can partially deduce that person’s genome. and this may be useful for initial screening for genetic diseases.”
The goal would be to be on the lookout for any mutation that makes a person prone to developing a certain disease to help prevent it.
question of numbers
The researchers acknowledge that the study is small, but believe it is “properly powered”, so they are confident that their findings will not change if done in a larger group.
“As the human population is now 7.9 billion, it is increasingly likely that these similar repeats will occur,” Esteller said in the statement.
“Analysis of a larger set will provide more genetic variants shared by these special individual pairs and could also be useful in elucidating the contribution of other layers of biological data to defining our faces.”
So is it very likely that we have a doppelganger?
“A person 100% identical to one of us is difficult, but a person 75% or 80% identical to us is probably already out there, because there are so many people in the world,” replied the doctor.
After years of photographing very similar strangers, Brunelle is fascinated.
“I think people are the same everywhere once you dig a little deeper. We are a species, whatever we look like!”