Richard III - DNA case closed

Researchers working in the ancient DNA lab at the University of York. (Photo credit: Carl Vivian Leicester University).
Researchers working in the ancient DNA lab at the University of York. (Photo credit: Carl Vivian Leicester University).
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Michi Hofreiter was among the experts who worked on the analysis of Richard III’s DNA in York. Chris Bond spoke to the professor who helped crack the case.

MICHI Hofreiter is more interested in woolly mammoths than he is in people.

At least he is when it comes to their DNA. “I’m more interested in mammoths, cave bears and hyenas,” he says. “I normally avoid humans because there is modern human DNA everywhere, shed by currently living people. So it is very easy to contaminate human samples with human DNA,” he says.

“This makes it virtually impossible to figure out which is the ancient DNA and which is the modern DNA.” Unlike with a mammoth where it’s much more difficult to contaminate the two.

But when Dr Turi King, from the University of Leicester, contacted him about getting involved with a project she was working on his curiosity was piqued.

Dr King was leading an international team of researchers to ascertain whether or not the skeleton with a twisted spine found beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012 was that of Richard III. The Yorkist king was killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the last significant clash between the forces of the Houses of Lancaster and York in the War of the Roses.

However, the question of what happened to his remains remained a mystery for centuries which is why the discovery of this particular skeleton, with its spinal abnormalities and “cleaved-in skull”, caused such excitement.

The bones were subsequently tested for DNA against Richard’s living descendants and last year archaeologists confirmed “beyond reasonable doubt” that they had their man.

This sparked a battle over where his final resting place ought to be with descendants of the king losing their passionate campaign to have the skeleton reinterred in York. Instead he will be reburied at Leicester Cathedral in March next year.

In the meantime, Dr King led the archaeological analysis of the king’s bones and turned to Prof Hofreiter, whom she likened to a “rock star” in the world of ancient DNA, to help with the crucial analysis.

The researchers compared the investigation to a missing person case that becomes more difficult over time – in this case, 527 years.

Hofreiter, an honorary professor of biology at the University of York, is one of the leading lights in his field and much of the key analysis was carried out at his laboratory in York.

Researchers collected DNA from Richard III’s living relatives and analysed several genetic indicators, including the complete mitochondrial genomes, inherited through the maternal line, and Y-chromosomal markers, inherited through the paternal line, from both the skeletal remains and the living relatives.

Speaking from Germany, where he’s now based, Prof Hofreiter says all the core DNA analysis, apart from some work done in ​Toulouse, was carried out here in Yorkshire.

“​The York lab acted as the main one of the two ancient DNA labs for the work on Richard where Dr Turi King​ and​ Dr Gloria Gonzales Fortes worked to examine his mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosome type and the genes involved in hair and eye colour.”

It presented a different challenge to those he usually faces. “I had done some work with humans but when you are taking the Y chromosome from a fossil you only have one copy in a cell so we had to get it 100 per cent right,” he says.

“​The biggest challenge was probably getting the work done with all the media and public interest putting a permanent focus on us. Everybody wanted to hear about the results but we couldn’t talk about them. Normally you can simply do a project and go public once it’s done and dusted. In this case there was a constant focus ​on the project while we did the work, which was quite stressful.”

The scientists used genetic markers to determine Richard’s hair and eye colour and found that he almost certainly had blue eyes and probably blonde hair, which suggests he would have looked similar to one of the earliest portraits of him that survived, housed in the Society of Antiquaries in London.

Their research, published earlier this month, is the first to carry out a statistical analysis of all the evidence together to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the skeleton from the Greyfriars site in Leicester is indeed the remains of Richard III.

“To bring somebody partially back to life who has been dead for more than 500 years, that was really fascinating,” says Prof Hofreiter. “But the biggest part of the whole project for me was working together with people from different scientific disciplines, because we could not have done our work if genealogists had not identified modern relatives of Richard.”

He set up the ancient DNA lab in York after moving there in 2009 and although he’s now based at the University of Potsdam he’s pleased that it continues to be used. “It took a lot of hard work to set it up so it’s good that people are still using it.”

It’s a field of scientific research that continues to grow. “It has changed a lot in the past decade and it’s becoming more important because we can go back further, it’s already changed our view of our own evolution,” he says.

“The belief was that modern humans started from populations that left Africa and didn’t mix with other groups. But ancient DNA shows they did mix with Neanderthals and this has changed our whole view of how we evolved.”

Prof Hofreiter was studying biology in Munich when he gravitated towards ancient DNA and quickly became hooked.

“I’m fascinated by the fact that you can hold a bone or ancient faeces and learn what something has eaten, it’s remarkable what we can learn about animals and humans. Most of the time we just have a few bones but what they can tell us from their DNA is incredible.”

Professor Hofreiter says this field of science has come a long way in a short space of time.

“It’s amazing how much we can deduce from ancient DNA today. Making inferences about the hair or eye colour of a person just from some DNA snippets obtained from a skeleton would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.”

And there is more to come. “We can push back the boundaries to see how far back in time we can go because we have not yet reached the limits. Being able to observe evolutionary genetics in real time, that is next.”

He believes it can help improve our understanding of things like the impact of climate change. “Our climate change models don’t take evolution into account but DNA can tell us how species reacted to it in the past.

“It means we can also get a better idea of how we might react in the future which is important in terms of our understanding of how we manage the planet, and that is no small thing.”