Prof. Eli Sprecher - Nir Kafri - August 2011
Prof. Eli Sprecher. Photo by Nir Kafri
Text size

Since 2004, every non-citizen wishing to enter the United States has been required to be fingerprinted.

Three years after the security measures was instituted, a young Swiss woman who came to visit the U.S. confronted the customs and border authorities with an extraordinary fact: She had no fingerprints.

In the wake of this incident in which the rare physiological phenomenon became a bureaucratic obstacle, the young woman turned to Peter Itin, a dermatologist at Basel University Hospital in Switzerland for an official document confirming the congenital nature of the phenomenon of blank fingertips known as adermatoglyphia. Today the condition is also called the "immigration delay disease."

The incident led Prof. Itin to research the phenomenon together with Israeli researchers from the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv. Recently, the researchers published an article in The American Journal of Human Genetics, announcing they found the gene mutation responsible for the rare syndrome.

According to the lead researcher of the Israeli group, Prof. Eli Sprecher of Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine, the scientific literature described only a very few families with the condition.

"But since the article was published I have been contacted by five other people who do not have fingerprints. I think this testifies to a phenomenon that isn't as rare as we think," he said.

In the Swiss woman's extended family there are nine other people who do not have fingerprints.

Apart from a slight problem with the hands' ability to perspire, Sprecher explains that the unique phenomenon does not entail any handicap or suffering. The only real problem is the increasing use of fingerprints as a means of identification at airports and elsewhere.

The research to identify the gene took longer than expected, Sprecher says. "We identified a certain area on the genome where we knew the gene and the mutation should appear. We invested a lot of work using pretty standard approaches to look for the genetic change in that area and we had no success until about a year ago, when a student at the lab, Dr. Janna Nousbeck, went through all kinds of databases and found a piece of RNA created as a result of the transcription of a gene in the area we examined."

According to Sprecher, "Inherited anomalies resulting from a single genetic defect constitute a unique source of information for understanding complex biological processes. Through the study of a rare inherited disorder, a unique mechanism was revealed here, which controls the creation of fingerprints in humans, a phenomenon about which nothing concerning its molecular basis was known until now. Even if this phenomenon is rare," he adds, "we have discovered an unknown facet here of the biology of each and every one of us."