The project, which may alter perceptions of the last king of
England to die in battle, more than 500 years ago, aims to learn
about Richard's ancestry and health, and provide a genetic archive
for historians, researchers and the public.
In one of the most significant archaeological finds of recent
English history, the skeleton — with a cleaved skull and curved
spine — was dug up from under a car park in the English city of
Leicester and unveiled last year as that of the king slain as he
fought to keep his crown at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
His death ended the Plantagenet dynasty and ushered in the Tudors
under Henry VII.
After taking a small sample of bone from the skeleton, Turi King of
the University of Leicester genetics department will grind it to a
powder, extract DNA and seek to piece together as much as possible
of Richard's genetic code.
"It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. You tile it together to get as
much of the genome as possible," King told reporters at a briefing
about the project on Tuesday.
Richard III's place in history is contested. William Shakespeare
cast him as a hunch-backed tyrant who murdered two princes in the
Tower of London and died in battle crying out: "A horse! A horse! My
kingdom for a horse!" Richard's supporters argue his reputation was
tarnished deliberately to cement Tudor rule.
Richard III's remains and any samples taken from them are to be
reinterred at some point — although the issue of when and where is
now a legal dispute.
The University of Leicester, whose archaeologists found and exhumed
the remains, were given permission from Britain's Ministry of
Justice to re-bury the king at Leicester cathedral.
Richard's descendants began legal action arguing there should be a
judicial review of the decision. They want him buried in York, the
northern England power base of his 26-month reign.
King said as the remains, including any samples taken by her team,
are to be reburied, it was timely to extract the DNA and sequence
his genome now for use as a future research resource.
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She warned, however, that since the remains are so old, his DNA is
fragmented and may not produce a complete genetic map.
"There may be gaps, but we'll just have to go with what we can get.
That's science, unfortunately," she said.
King said the aim of the research was to gain insight into Richard's
genetic makeup, including his susceptibility to certain diseases
and his hair and eye color.
"One of the things I'm going to be particularly interested in is ...
can we see whether or not Richard III was predisposed towards
scoliosis (a condition that causes curvature of the spine), for
example," she said.
The gene mapping is also expected to shed light on his genetic
ancestry and relationship to modern human populations.
King's team also plan to map the genome of one of his family's
descendants, Michael Ibsen — a Canadian-born furniture maker now
living in London who genealogists said was the direct descendant of
Richard's sister, Anne of York.
An initial analysis of the DNA of his mitochondria — the batteries
that power the body's cells — which is passed down the maternal
line, confirmed Ibsen and Richard III shared the same lineage, and a
more detailed study is due to be published shortly. King said her
project will look for any other segments of DNA the distant
relatives might share.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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