Scientists to unlock secrets from Richard III remains

Scientists have announced plans to sequence King Richard III’s genomes in an attempt to discover more about the 15th century monarch, including what he really looked like.

Richard’s remains were discovered in 2012 amid the buried ruins of an old friary beneath a Leicester car park.

Although portraits of the king exist, they were painted around 50 years after his death, in 1485 during the final battle of the bloody Wars of the Roses.

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Scientists hope to find out the king’s hair and eye colour and even the shade of his skin from mapping “all three billion letters of his genome”.

Their work could also shed light on the health of Richard, who suffered from the spine-curving condition scoliosis, revealing what diseases he may have been predisposed to later in life had he not become the last king of England to die in battle.

They could examine whether Richard was predisposed to obesity or would have been likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and even assess one element of his diet, whether or not he was lactose intolerant.

Richard will be the world’s first known figure from ancient history to have his genomes sequenced.

In the past, only a small number of ancient anonymous individuals - Neanderthal specimens, a Greenlandic Inuit, a hunter gatherer from Spain and a 5,300-year-old frozen body found in the Alps - have had their genomes sequenced.

Scientists must carry out their work before Richard is re-interred, a process which has become the subject of a legal battle. His relatives are fighting for the remains to be buried at York Minster, claiming it was the king’s wish, instead of the cathedral in Leicester, the city where he was found.

The team say that by mapping out his genome they will ensure that researchers can continue to learn about Richard’s past even once his remains have been interred. As the genetic basis of new diseases becomes known, these can be tested for.

Dr Turi King at the University of Leicester - where scientists revealed the remains to be those of Richard III last year - is the geneticist carrying out the research.

She said sequencing Richard’s genomes “will allow insight into his genetic makeup and predisposition towards disease”, adding “one of the things I’m particularly interested in looking at is, can we look to see whether or not Richard III was predisposed towards scoliosis?”

Unveiling the plans at a press conference in London, she said: “You can start to sequence bacteria and will be interesting to see whether or not we see any evidence of infection in Richard.”

She added: “There are no contemporary portraits of Richard. All the portraits that exist post-date his death by about 40 to 50 years onwards. So it’s going to be interesting to see what the genetic information provides in relation to what we know from the portraits.”