A scientist at the University of Leicester is leading a project to reveal the complete genetic profile of Richard III, which will reveal details such as eye and hair colour, and if he was genetically-disposed to certain diseases.
Dr Turi King of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester will lead the study, which is being funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust. It will be based on samples taken from the skeleton of Richard III, which was discovered in 2012. Dr King and colleagues plan to sequence his genome and make it freely accessible as a resource to researchers wishing to analyse and interrogate its genetic information.
Richard III will be one of only a small number of ancient individuals to have had their genomes sequenced. Others include Otzi the Iceman, Neanderthal specimens, a Denisovan and a Greenlandic Inuit and a hunter gatherer from Spain. Richard III will be the first ancient individual of known identity to have his genome sequenced. This will be carried out in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter at the University of Potsdam.
Analysis of Richard III’s genome will allow insight into his genetic make-up, including susceptibility to certain diseases, hair and eye colour, and as the genetic basis of other diseases becomes known, these too can be examined for. It is also expected to shed light on his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations. In addition, next generation sequencing technologies will allow the researchers to detect DNA from other organisms such as pathogens. Whole genome sequencing from Otzi the Iceman found the first known human infection with Lyme disease, for example.
“It is an extremely rare occurrence that archaeologists are involved in the excavation of a known individual, let alone a king of England,” Dr. King explains. “At the same time we are in the midst of a new age of genetic research, with the ability to sequence entire genomes from ancient individuals and with them, those of pathogens that may have caused infectious disease. Sequencing the genome of Richard III is a hugely important project that will help to teach us not only about him, but ferment discussion about how our DNA informs our sense of identity, our past and our future.”
In addition to sequencing the remains of Richard III, Dr King and colleagues will also sequence one of his living relatives, Michael Ibsen. An initial analysis of the DNA of his mitochondria – the batteries that power the cells in our bodies – which is passed down the maternal line, confirmed the genealogical evidence that Ibsen and Richard III shared the same lineage. A more detailed analysis is due to be published shortly. This new project will allow researchers to look for any other segments of DNA that these distant relatives share.
Dr Dan O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities at the Wellcome Trust, adds “We are delighted that, through our Research Resources grants programme, we are able to support this innovative and fascinating work. Sequencing Richard III’s genome will not only give us a unique insight into the past, but have a profound impact on the way we think about disease and heredity in our own genomic age. By making this genome available to all, we will ensure that we can continue to learn about Richard’s past – both personal and historic – even once his remains have been interred.”