In Michael Mosley: Nine Months That Made You, the eponymous host meets Cheryl Maynard, who was born without fingerprints because of the genetic disorder adermatoglyphia.
While we take the swirly lines on our fingers that act as our unique markers for granted, those born without them face the unusual challenge of identifying their very being, as do the authorities.
But the flipside is you could use that to your advantage – if you wanted to. As Mosely says, “To the authorities, this woman is invisible.”
What causes adermatoglyphia?
Normally, our unique fingerprints are fully formed during pregnancy. The ridges on our fingers develop patterns of whirls, loops or arches, or a combination of all three on our 10 fingers. But those with adermatoglyphia or “immigration delay disease” are born with finger pads that are smooth, apart from some possible creasing.
When taking a fingerprint of someone with the condition, “instead of having a nice, regular pattern of concentric circles, you see a smear,” says Professor Eli Sprecher, Director, Department of Dermatology at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, Israel.
It’s an extremely rare condition, with only four extended families in the world known to have it.
Professor Sprecher and Professor Peter Itin of University Hospital Basel, Switzerland studied a Swiss family with the disease and found that nine out of 16 members had adermatoglyphia, confirming it was genetic. In 2011, they discovered the cause, a mutation in the SMARCAD1 gene, which is involved in developing fingerprints in the womb.
“We are all very much fascinated by fingerprints, which carve a natural identity for each of us, yet nobody had even the slightest clue of which protein causes this,” Professor Sprecher says. “This is the first identification of an element that is vital to form fingerprints.”
Without the key identification marker of fingerprints, life can get very complicated. That’s where the investigation started, when Professor Itin was contacted in 2007 by a member of the Swiss family who wasn’t allowed to enter the United States because she was printless. All non-US residents have to be fingerprinted to enter the country – the authorities were left scratching their heads when the woman told them she was born without any. That was the genesis of the condition’s less formal name, “immigration delay disease”.
Securing employment can also be a huge issue for people without fingerprints, as Maynard, one in the fifth generation of her family with the condition, found out.
"I applied for work at a jail facility, and they were naturally fingerprinting people who were going to be employees," she told National Geographic. "I kept hearing, ‘Of course you have fingerprints.' And five or six different technicians were telling one another, ‘You're doing this wrong, let me do this.' I have to tell them I was born without them. Things like that are a problem. It has delayed me [from] getting jobs."
Apart from identification nightmares, the only serious physical symptom of adermatoglyphia is a reduced number of sweat glands, which means an inability to sweat properly. "Because they cannot evacuate heat, they can develop heat stroke," says Sprecher.
"I swam competitively as a kid, but some parents would always ask why I was sitting on the side of the pool,” Maynard explains. “My mum would have to tell them, ‘Even though the water is cold, she's overheated from swimming.'"
Identity theft has graduated from your simple swiping of passwords and credit card details to the stealing of fingerprints used for biometric identification, so that’s one less security risk to worry about.
But if crime is your bag (and we would never condone a life of crime), you could potentially commit the perfect one(s) – if you’re careful. While there are other ways to ID a perp, fingerprinting, still not a perfect science, remains key. Last year alone, 10,000 fingerprint matches were made in Victoria.
Not only will you never be on a database of fingerprints, people with adermatoglyphia also have smooth palms and soles on the feet and no toe prints to add to the ghost-crim kit.
You’d have an advantage over lawbreakers that have attempted, usually very painfully, to erase their fingerprints from their body. Depression-era gangsters became renowned for it. John Dillinger famously tried by burning off the tips of his fingers in acid and members of the Barker-Karpis Gang hired a Mob doctor who did an incompetently stabby job. But they should have been thinking bigger – the very same unique ridges of their fingertips were on the surface of their palms.
Watch Michael Mosley: Nine Months That Made You on Monday December 4 at 8:30pm on SBS.