Not Quite Science’s Time Machine, but Almost: Identifying the Remains of Famous Historical Figures using DNA Analysis

Are there ways in which history intertwines with cutting-edge modern science?  Surprisingly, there are: one such technique is DNA analysis, which can be used to identify the corpses of famous historical figures. In fact, there are numerous recent examples of archaeologists making substantive gains in historical knowledge because of the identification of celebrated characters from English kings to Enlightenment scientific thinkers.

For example, when a corpse is found in a tomb, it may be claimed to belong to a famous historical figure.  In order to ascertain the identity of the corpse, scientists can use the technique of DNA analysis.  First they extract DNA from the bones and teeth of the skeleton, then they determine whether the DNA has a high probability of belonging to that individual.  Once an identification is made, the archaeologists and historians step in and learn other interesting information from the burial, such as the circumstances in which the individual died [3].

Though this technique probably sounds cutting-edge, it is actually familiar to the public.  The concept of using preserved DNA to learn more about history was first popularized by the movie Jurassic Park, where DNA preserved in dinosaur blood in an amber-trapped mosquito was sequenced and used to recreate dinosaurs through insertion of an embryo in a crocodile’s womb [1]. Though such a technique has been proven to be impractical, Jurassic Park was important for initially presenting the idea to the public that preserved DNA can be analyzed with substantive results.

Today, we have a complete lack of amber-trapped ancient mosquitos, especially those carrying the blood of historical figures we wish to study.  So how does DNA analysis work?  After the remains of a historical figure are found, scientists must determine from where to extract DNA. DNA degrades over time due to exposure to oxygen, water and enzymes from the surrounding environment, so extraction can prove difficult.  However, the decay of DNA is slowed if the DNA is combined with the calcium-rich hydroxyapatite, which is found predominantly in the bones and teeth [2], and thus the is an ideal source.  After extraction, scientists amplify this preserved DNA using a common technique known as PCR, or Polymerase Chain Reaction, sequence sections of the DNA using computer analysis, then match the sequenced DNA with a sequence from either the same person or a close relative of that person.

There are several cases where DNA analysis has confirmed well-known historical figures.  Earlier this year, a skeleton was found under a car park in Leicester, England.  DNA analysis from the teeth and bones proved that the skeleton actually belonged to King Richard III, a 15th century English king with a famous case of scoliosis, or curved spine, and is well-known as the protagonist in Shakespeare’s play, Richard III. In making this exciting identification, scientists successfully compared Richard’s sequence of DNA with a 17th century descendant of his sister.  Once this identity was confirmed, historians were able to gather facts about how Richard III actually died in battle.  They learned that he was stabbed several times in the head at the time of his death, and that he was not given a careful burial, instead hrown into a ditch to his own humiliation.  His scoliosis was also as severe as had been rumored, while bone analysis revealed that his diet consisted primarily of meat and fish [4].

In the 15th century, Renaissance astronomer and polymath Nicolaus Copernicus presented a radical heliocentric view of the universe—that the Earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around.  This event has been lauded as one of the landmark events in the history of science, as it contributed to the spark of the Scientific Revolution which forever changed the world.  For this reason, finding Copernicus’ remains has been of such appeal that Napoleon Bonaparte once ordered one of his officers to search for it in 1807.  Finally, in 2004, a group of Polish scientists decided to begin this search on their own, and a year later they succeeded in finding a possible skeleton.

The discovery was promising, as the skull of the skeleton had a broken nose and a scar above the left eye socket, just as Copernicus had.  Yet this was not enough to make the identification; analysis of DNA from the teeth closely matched DNA from two strands of hair found in one of Copernicus’ calendars, which had been stored in a museum in Sweden [3]. Thus, after hundreds of years of eluding discovery, Copernicus’ remains were thanks to the benefits of DNA analysis, marking a compelling discovery which would appeal to any admirers of science or history around the time of the Renaissance.

It is thanks to this scientific technique that historians can benefit after discovering corpses of famous figures.  Though creating Jurassic Park remains a scientific impossibility, it is important for the public to realize the value of DNA analysis in other humanitarian applications.

References
1. SSEP (US). Jurassic Park: Is it Possible? [Internet]. Durham, NC: SHODOR (US); [cited 26 Mar 2013]. Available from: http://www.shodor.org/ssep/lessons/jurassic/fact.html
2. Museum Victoria (AU). How is Ancient DNA Preserved? [Internet]. Melbourne, VIC (Australia): Museum Victoria (AU); [cited 26 Mar 2013]. Available from: http://museumvictoria.com.au/scidiscovery/dna/preserved.asp
3. Bogdanowicz W, Allen M, Branicki W, Lembring M, Gajewska M, Kupiec T. Genetic remains of putative remains of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. PNAS [Internet]. 2009 Jul 7 [cited 26 Mar 2013];106(30):12279-12282. Available from: ttp://www.pnas.org/content/106/30/12279.full
4. Burns JF. Bones under Parking Lot Belonged to Richard III [Internet]. The New York Times: New York, NY; 2013 Feb 4 [cited 26 Mar 2013]. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/05/world/europe/richard-the-third-bones.html?src=me&ref=general
5. Chappell B. DNA Links Bloody Handkerchief To French King’s Execution [Internet]. National Republic Radio: Washington, DC; 2013 Jan 03 [cited 26 Mar 2013]. Available from: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/03/168556303/dna-links-bloody-handkerchief-to-french-kings-execution

Sunny Parmar is a rising senior at Georgetown University majoring in Economics. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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