What’s in a King? Apparently DNA.

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).

It seems that even though it would be “very hard to prove” the remains of ‘King Alfred the Great’ actually belong to King Alfred the Great with DNA, they may be going ahead with it anyway.

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?

Need I go on with the quick run-through of some of the data we’ve gathered from kingly DNA? I mean, I know that some of these are not full sequences, rather being basic analyses, but still it hardly seems worth it, eh, except for saying that they’re not a number things. Richard III is not a Pteridium aquilinum (common fern). This old biscuit in a tin on my counter is not the remains of King George. Are we all descendants of King Kong? No. And yet, they tend to dominate the news.

I’m not denying Richard (we’re probably okay to be on a first name basis, right) has pulling power when it comes to people’s imaginations (and therefore their money), but when it comes to the £100,000 dedicated to the genome sequencing project – I reckon there are better ways to spend it to “highlight the important role archaeology has to play in helping us to understand our history and heritage… [and] inspire a new generation of archaeologists.

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.

8 responses to “What’s in a King? Apparently DNA.

  1. oh god I totally agree, there is so much more to learn from targeted DNA analyses with specific research questions in mind, instead of just ‘oh look a king, we better sequence his genome’

    Like that terrible ‘dead famous DNA program’, really shoddy science, but I suppose it pulls funding quite easily. But yes I’d much rather see the genome of 4th century chinese peasant I think, much more interesting.

  2. Whilst I agree that this project does seem a bit frivolous, I have come round to it a bit now. I think the crucial thing is that the Richard III skeleton shows evidence of a rare condition that is possibly genetic. I don’t think this project would be going ahead otherwise. Sequencing the genome of archaeological skeletons that demonstrate genetic disorders in order to understand their occurrence and development has been discussed for a while. In this sense sampling Richard or at least a named individual is actually more beneficial than sampling some randomer as there’s a much greater knowledge of their life history. Add to the fact that sequencing Richard’s genome is likely to stimulate maximum public interest and engagement (whether we like it or not) then this skeleton is the obvious choice for this kind of project.

    It still seems a bit excessive to do the whole genome, although it depends whether they know the markers and locations of genes that control for scoliosis. I suppose it might come down to understanding any results within their genomic context perhaps…

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  4. Some of the projects you mention do sound frivolous, but I think one thing about Richard III’s DNA is that we do, in fact, have a known living relative. Not that this is the first time that’s been the case, but I bet there’s things we can learn just by working out what got passed down and what didn’t. With commoners, unfortunately, there’s less of a chance we know who their descendents are in the first place.

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