The Winter Of Our Disinterment: Decoding The DNA Science That Tracked Richard III's Remains

The world gapes in wonder today at the magic and power of mitochondrial DNA. Here's how the lost King was found.

Britain's beloved boffins have solved a centuries-old mystery: Where is the body of Richard III? Famous for his historic if short rule, his unfortunate disabilities, and a rather spiffing Shakespeare play, Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field, August 22, 1485—marking the end of the Middle Ages in Britain. But the king's body remained lost until just now.

The British science team identified him positively using two techniques. One may be familiar to you if you've watched the TV series Bones: An anthropological study of the skeleton revealed evidence that said this body had scoliosis, just like Richard, good teeth (unusual among lower classes), and that he suffered injuries and fatal wounds that match historic evidence about his death.

The other technique used mitochondrial DNA—a tiny spiral of genetic material that's passed down from mother to child. It's different than the "normal" DNA you think of as residing in all the cells in your body because during reproduction this type of DNA doesn't get juggled with DNA from a child's father. Instead it only bears the stamp of its female bearers, plus some random mutations through time. This means it's easy to track the relatives of one woman through history, which is why mitochondrial DNA has led us to believe humans are all descended from one early woman.

In the case of Richard the Third, the DNA was match found in Michael Ibsen's body. He's a living relative of Richard, being the 17th great grand-nephew of Richard's older sister Cecily. Ibsen and the body found in Britain share a rare strain of mitochondrial DNA and this, combined with the evidence from the bones themselves, has led to a positive ID. Finding Richard the Third's body now was a boon because this particular line of DNA is about to die out because Ibsen's only sister has no children of her own.

You may remember that a positive ID for Osama Bin Laden was achieved via a related DNA technique.

Such skillful DNA unraveling is one of the technological marvels of our time. And that despite the fact that it's fraught with emotional, moral, and technical difficulties.

[Image: Flickr user Bolckow]

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