University of Leicester research uses Sir David Attenborough’s DNA to determine link between Y chromosome and surname

Posted by ap507 at Feb 10, 2016 11:01 AM |
Sir David revisited the University in January to deliver the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture and open new arts centre extension

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 10 February 2016

Image of Dr Turi King with Sir David available to download at:

A study carried out by a University of Leicester researcher, Dr Turi King, used the DNA of Sir David Attenborough as part of a larger study to see if there was a link between the Y chromosome and surname, both of which are passed down the male line.

The project also involved examining the Y chromosomes of over 1,600 apparently unrelated men with 40 different surnames.

The study found that for men with uncommon surnames, such as Attenborough, there was a clear link between a Y chromosome type and their surname even though they did not know themselves to be related.

The research suggests as many as 90 per cent of men alive in Britain today with the Attenborough surname (and the spelling variant, Attenborrow) shared a common ancestor with Sir David Attenborough within the past 700 years. 

However, when examining the results from a random sample of men all bearing a common surname, such as Smith, they were no more likely to share a common ancestor through their surname, than men with different surnames chosen at random from the general population. 

“Attenboroughs essentially form one big family of distant relatives,” said Dr Turi King of the University’s Department of Genetics. “The Y chromosome type was the same even across spelling variants, which confirms that the spellings of names were formalised only relatively recently.

“David was kind enough to take part in the research project many years ago and his surname was one of the ones that really stood out. With rarer surnames, and actually most surnames are rare, it was found that there seemed to be one Y-chromosome type that dominated the group. David’s surname was the best example of this with nearly 90 per cent of men with the surname having an identical or near identical Y chromosome type. He’s always been so generous letting me talk about his association with the project, it was nice to finally meet him and thank him in person.”

On Thursday 28 January, Sir David Attenborough returned to the University of Leicester to deliver the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture on 'Beauty in Nature', where he explored his life-long love with the natural world.

The following day, Friday 29 January, Sir David officially opened the new £1.5million gallery extension at Attenborough Arts Centre, the University’s inclusive, multi-use arts venue on Lancaster Road which was championed by his late brother Richard Attenborough.

The Attenborough brothers grew up in College House on the University’s campus, which was then known as University College, Leicester, where his father, Frederick, was Principal from 1931 -1951.

The study by Turi King and Mark Jobling at the University of Leicester was funded by the Wellcome Trust and is published in the journal Molecular Biology & Evolution


Notes to editors:

Contact Dr Turi King on:

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. We provide more than £700 million a year to support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.


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