Richard III sequencing – Background Q&A

What does genome sequencing mean?

Whole genome sequencing is a way of reading a person’s DNA. It reveals the exact order of the three billion molecules – the A, T, C and Gs – of our DNA.

Why are you sequencing Richard III’s genome?

Sequencing Richard III’s genome will shed light on his ancestry, genetic predisposition to disease as well as providing information on bacteria and viruses that may have affected his health. This is a rare opportunity to sequence the genome of an individual from history with known living relatives, and as such, will have implications for our knowledge of infectious disease in the past and present.

How is this different to the DNA test that was previously carried out to identify Richard III?

In 2013, scientists carried out a mitochondrial DNA test to establish a genetic link between Richard III’s skeleton and a known living relative, Michael Ibsen. Mitochondria are the batteries that power our cells; the DNA that provides the codes for these batteries is known as mitochondrial DNA and is passed down from mother to child.

Whole genome sequencing can provide around 3000 times more data than mitochondrial DNA, providing us with much more information about Richard III, his health, and any bacteria or viruses that may be present within his DNA.

What will this data tell us about Richard III?

Analysis of Richard III’s genome will allow insight into his genetic make-up in relation to disease, infection, ancestry and identity. There are genetic components of disease risk that are now known, for example: scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine), heart disease and body mass index. We will also be able to learn about genes associated with Richard III’s physical characteristics, such as hair colour and eye colour – it will be particularly interesting to compare these characteristics to paintings of the king, none of which were contemporary.

DNA from other organisms (for example bacteria or viruses) might also be detected alongside Richard III’s genome. These will provide information on what infections he might have had, how common they are and how they compare to the same organisms from the present day. Whole-genome sequencing from Otzi the Iceman, a previously-sequenced ancient individual, found the first known human infection with Lyme disease, for example.

The legacy of this sequencing means that as the genetic basis of other diseases and infections become known, this data can be used for many decades to come.

Most of our characteristics are influenced by a combination of several genes and our environment. Will Richard III’s sequence really tell us anything meaningful?

As Richard III is a known historical individual, his genome sequence can be placed within its environmental, social and historical context. Data and information about Richard III already exists, enabling his genome to be used in further population genetic analysis, perhaps to ascertain how his medieval genome sits within a modern European context, the diversity within his genome, and how much genetic information he shares with proven modern relatives.

How will you use this data?

An analysis will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, with the data subsequently made available on a dedicated website and made as accessible as possible for those who wish to study it. Not only will this data add significantly to the number of ancient genomes already published, but it will be the only case of its kind accompanied by a wealth of historical information about the individual. This means that this data is relevant to a variety of disciplines, from genetics/genomics researchers to microbiologists, archaeologists and historians, as well as the public.

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