The continuing studies of the teeth and faces of Australian twins and their families in the Craniofacial Biology Research Group in the School of Dentistry at the University of Adelaide began 30 years ago. Three main cohorts of twins have been recruited, enabling various objectives and specific hypotheses to be addressed about the roles of genetic, epigenetic and environmental influences on human dentofacial growth and development, as well as oral health.
This paper highlights some key findings arising from these studies, emphasizing those of direct relevance to practising oral health professionals. We also draw on published literature to review the significant developments in relation to the use of precision 2D and 3D imaging equipment, the application of modern molecular techniques, and the development of sophisticated computer software for analysing genetic relationships and comparing complex shapes. Such developments are valuable for current and future work.
Apart from the classical or traditional twin model, there are several other twin models that can be used in research to clarify the relative contributions of genetic, epigenetic and environmental contributions to phenotypic variation. The monozygotic (MZ) co-twin model is one particularly valuable method, given that examination of only one pair of MZ twins can provide considerable insights into underlying causes of observed variation. This model can be used in a dental practice environment, with oral health professionals having the opportunity to explore differences in orofacial structures between MZ co-twins who are attending as patients.
As researchers have become more aware of the complexities of the interactions between the genome, the epigenome and the environment during development, there is the need to collect more phenotypic data and define new phenotypes that will better characterize variations in growth processes and health status. When coupled with powerful new genetic approaches, including genome-wide association studies and linkage analyses, exciting opportunities are opening up to unravel the causes of problems in craniofacial growth and common oral diseases in human populations.