Wellcome Trust provides funds for Richard III’s genome to be sequenced
When archaeologists announced they had unearthed the mortal remains of King Richard III last year, the news was met with much excitement. This week, the Wellcome Trust announced it is helping to fund the University of Leicester to sequence the king’s genome. The WellcomeTrust’s media relations manager, Craig Brierley, explains what we hope to get out of this project.
Richard III was one of England’s most famous, or infamous, monarchs – depending on whose version of history you listen to. Just over year ago, a group of archaeologists led by the University of Leicester announced they had found his remains.
The discovery was met with great excitement and global media coverage. This after all was the king who, according to popular mythology, imprisoned two princes with a legitimate claim to the throne in the Tower of London, and then ordered their execution. He also merited a place in Shakespeare’s portfolio, portrayed as a hunchbacked villain in one of the Bard’s famous histories.
Whilst the discovery of Richard III’s remains does little to verify or disprove his alleged villainy, they do offer a unique opportunity to find out more about this famous historical figure. But time is running out: subject to the outcome of a judicial review, his remains are due to be reinterred later this year, possibly as early as summer.
Advances in technology mean that by taking a small sample of Richard III’s remains, we should be able to study his entire genome – the exact sequence of roughly three billion As, Cs, Ts and Gs that make up his DNA. This is a tremendous amount of data – a trip to see the human genome bookcase and its many volumes in Wellcome Collection shows you just how much – but it will provide us with a rich source of information. This could include his susceptibility to certain diseases, his hair and eye colour, his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations.
The Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust, together with the pioneer of DNA fingerprinting, Sir Alec Jeffreys, are funding a project for Dr Turi King from the University of Leicester to do just that. We are supporting this work through our Research Resources scheme and so, in keeping with our ethos, this sequence will be made publicly available to anyone wishing to study it. Dr King will also be sequencing the genome of Michael Ibsen, one of Richard III’s proven relatives, although this data will not be made public.
There are some interesting ethical questions that this project raises, for example, when is a person’s genome sequence allowed to be made public? Since Richard III has been dead for 500 years and has no direct descendants there is no danger of compromising a living person’s medical privacy through sequencing his DNA.
We could find that had Richard III not fallen at the Battle of Bosworth, he may have been genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s. Would it be possible then to infer that his known proven relatives alive today would also be at risk? Given how many generations have passed and that none of the relatives is a direct descendant – Michael Ibsen, for example, is his seventeenth generation nephew – it would be extremely difficult to make this inference.
The project has been scrutinised by ethics committees at the University of Leicester who are satisfied that this research is in the public interest and will be conducted ethically.
Whilst Dr King will be analysing the genome sequences of both Richard III and Michael Ibsen, only the monarch’s data will be made publicly available, for obvious reasons.
As one of our monarchs, and as a known historical figure, there is much that we can learn from this project. Richard III will be one of only a small number of ancient individuals to have had their genomes sequenced (others include Otzi the Iceman and several Neanderthal specimens), but the king will be the first ancient individual of known identity to have his genome sequenced. Dr King visited the Wellcome Trust and told us about project and how she hopes others will make use of the data she collects.
Whatever Dr King’s research throws up, the results are bound to be fascinating – and with the sequence in the public domain, it will enable researchers to continue to provide insights into Richard III’s life and times for decades to come.
Find out more about our Research Resources grants on our funding pages.