In February 2012, King Richard III’s bones were discovered beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. Now, geneticist Turi King, who tested the remains when they were initially found to determine who they belonged to, plans to head a project in order to sequence King Richard III’s DNA.
Richard III is best known today from the Shakespeare play of the same name, wherein he is portrayed as a hunchbacked, villainous man. There are no portraits of him from the time that he was alive, so some historians believe that this portrayal of him as a deformed, ugly man may have been propaganda spread by the Borgia family after his death. Decoding his genome will give light to many physical attributes – such as whether or not he was predisposed to certain genetic conditions or diseases, like scoliosis.
As the only portraits that exist of King Richard III are from four to five decades after his death, revealing his genetic make-up will also be useful for finding out his true appearance in more basic aspects. For example, his true eye and hair color and hair texture are of particular interest to historians for comparing the scientific reality to the historical portrayals.
When the science behind genome sequencing was first developed, it costed millions of dollars and took over a decade to complete, but with advances in technology both cost and time taken have been substantially cut down. With a good sample, a genome can be sequenced in a matter of hours. The cost is still relatively high, this project’s price being an estimated $165,000; it is being funded by Alec Jeffreys, who is the scientist that invented genetic fingerprinting, the Wellcome Trust, and the Leverhulme Trust.
Previously, the technology had only been used on the remains of ancient people found by archaeologists, such as neanderthals, Oetzi the Iceman, and recently the remains of a hunter-gatherer discovered in Spain. King Richard III will be the first historically relevant person to undergo the process of having his DNA sequenced, which may spark further interest to map the genomes of other historical figures.
A long legal battle over where the remains will be reburied has been drawn out over the past two years, so Turi King, professor of genetics at the University of Leicester, was concerned that time may be running out and that they will be forced to give up the remains and any samples they have taken from them, which is what prompted her to take on the project now.
King will also be sequencing the DNA of Richard III’s closest living relative, a man by the name of Michael Ibsen. She claims that too much time has passed and that Ibsen is separated from his royal ancestor by too many generations for there to be any high chance of significant similarities aside from mitochondria that prove their relatedness. However, she still thinks that it would still be interesting to see if there are any traits that have survived over the course of history in spite of the distance.
The sequencing off King Richard III’s DNA will take place in Leicester and in Germany at the University of Potsdam, and once completed, the map of his genome will be available to the public.
By Robin Syrenne