The genomes of King Richard III and one of his family's direct living descendants are to be sequenced in a project funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys. The project will be led by Dr Turi King of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester.
The aim is to shed new light on the ancestry and health of the last king of England to die in battle, and provide a complete archive of information that historians, scientists and the public will be able to access and use.
A skeleton was excavated from a car park in Leicester and subsequently revealed to be the remains of Richard III to the world at a press conference on 4 February 2013 by a team of archaeologists and scientists from the University of Leicester. His remains and any samples taken from them are scheduled to be reinterred and for this reason, Dr Turi 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.
Dr King says: "It is an extremely rare occurrence that archaeologists are involved in the excavation of a known individual, let alone a king of England. 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, says: "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."
Professor Gordon Marshall, Director of the Leverhulme Trust said: "The Leverhulme Trust has a long-standing tradition of funding research that crosses the boundaries between academic disciplines. We are pleased to support Dr Turi King's project to sequence Richard III's genome, which brings together archaeology, anthropology and genetics in a particularly innovative and unusually tangible way."
The University of Leicester requires research projects concerning human subjects to receive ethical approval. The project has been reviewed by the Ethics Committee of the University of Leicester's College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology.
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