It’s been a little while since I’ve done a ‘proper’ blogpost, but that’s because I’ve been working on a few things (including, shockingly, my PhD thesis).
However, in amongst all of this busy-ness, one subject keeps coming back up: aDNA analysis and ‘kings’. I write that word in single quotations because many of these investigations have been carried out to determine the kingliness of certain individuals (to varying degrees of success).
Obviously, the most high profile version of the king sequencer stories (at least in the UK) is the news that following the identification of Richard III* (which itself used aDNA testing, following osteological asessment), the University of Leicester will be undertaking an extended research project to sequence the full genome of both Richard III and a living relative.
Now, a standard aDNA analysis for identification is expensive, but not prohibitively so – it ranges from a few hundred to a few (lower) thousand pounds depending on the samples. It is becoming much more common in archaeology (and other subject areas) especially in research areas focusing on evolution, migration, disease, etc.
However, sequencing an entire genome – two entire genomes – is expensive. The next phase of the Richard III project is costing (at least) £100,000. While not all of this money will be allocated to the genome sequencing (this generally costs a few (higher) thousand pounds, each – again depending on the samples), it is still a lot of cash monies to invest in a research project to tell us about Richard III’s hair and eye colour, susceptibility to certain diseases, his genetic ancestry, and relationship to modern human populations. Remember this is only going to tell us things about Richard III (and maybe a little bit about his 17th generation nephew – which, while I’m sure he’s a nice guy, do I really need to know more about the genetics of a carpenter from Canada?).
I’ll admit the plan for sequencing other potential organisms’ DNA (such as pathogens) that are detected is exciting – but it’s a bit of a fumbling around isn’t it – what if there’s nothing interesting in there? I’d prefer some targeted research questions please. Not to mention the fact that I gather (from the information available) this sequencing would require additional funding.
To me, this whole situation is reminiscent of the recent trend (which, thankfully is now fading a bit) for doing stable isotope analysis on every skeleton left, right, and centre to see what the results say. Instead of, you know, having a specific research question and then coming to the decision that stable isotope analysis is the best method to help you answer it.
So back to the fella from the car park. Some people have criticised this project because of the destructive sampling involved. However, I’m not really into it simply because I think it’s misguided.
If the team investigating the whereabouts of the (former) final resting place of Richard III hadn’t located his remains, would they be still be performing aDNA analysis on another individual? Because, frankly, you’d get the same amount of genetic information – and therefore ability to form an interpretation about the results. What makes Richard III so special?
Oh yeah, it’s because he’s a king. Big whoop, I say. I know he’s the ‘first named individual’ to have their full genome sequenced from aDNA, but is knowing who he is a good enough reason to do it?
Case in point, there are some other ‘oh look a king, let’s break out the thermocycler’ stories that have been in the news recently:
The blood soaked into a handkerchief inside a gourd previously thought to be King Louis XVI’s is probably not Louis XVI’s afterall (no really, you don’t say).
Sweden is applying the Richard III approach and conducting DNA tests on the recently retrieved (from his burial coffin) remains of King Erik IX to discover generic (not the same word as genetic, but who can tell the difference these days) things and stuff about him.
And who could forget the boy King his royalness that is Tut(ankhamun) who’s DNA analysis has fuelled race wars in recent years (in addition to telling us a few things about him and his family – although not a whole heap of it useful).
Oh, and of course there is the DNA of Mad King George (or rather a £3000 wig that is in no way going to tell us anything about his genetics). Who says television’s standards have dropped since the good old days?
Public archaeology outreach projects, for one.
History wasn’t all rich white male royals with incredibly unusual deaths and burials (in fact, they make up a very small proportion of it). So how about we stop making a big deal of those examples and focus a little bit more on the rest of humanity?
Consider me Tyrion.
Of course, there are other individuals who are not kings who have had their genomes sequenced (yes, despite the above examples, it’s true: non-royals also have DNA) which have produced some interesting results, including (amongst others) Otzi the Iceman (and his lovely Lyme disease) and some Neanderthals (and their insights into human origins), so many I shouldn’t write it off just yet?
*If you recently read news stories that put doubt to these results, you can also read a good article on why ‘the car park skeleton is almost certainly Richard III’ here.
If you want to know a bit more about ancient DNA analysis, I have a few blogposts on it starting here.