Researchers hope to shed new light on the health and ancestry of Richard III, by examining his DNA.
A team will extract DNA from a bone sample, before sequencing the former Plantagenet king’s genome.
Analysis of Richard III’s genome will offer insights into his genetic make-up, including hair and eye colour, and susceptibility to diseases such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes.
Genome sequencing is a way of reading our entire genetic code – the exact sequence of roughly three billion As, Cs, Ts and Gs that make up our DNA.
The project will be led by Dr Turi King of the department of genetics at the University of Leicester, in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter at the University of Potsdam.
The team plans to make Richard III’s genome freely accessible as a resource to researchers wishing to analyse and interrogate its genetic information.
Richard III will become one of only a small number of ancient individuals to have had their genome sequenced. Others include Otzi the Iceman, a hunter-gatherer from Spain, Neanderthal specimens, and a Greenlandic Inuit.
Richard will be the first ancient individual of known identity to have his genome sequenced.
Dr King and colleagues will also sequence one of his living relatives, Michael Ibsen. An initial analysis of the DNA of his mitochondria – the batteries that power the cells in our bodies, which is passed down the maternal line – confirmed the genealogical evidence that Ibsen and Richard III shared the same lineage. A more detailed analysis is due to be published shortly.
Dr King said: “It is an extremely rare occurrence that archaeologists are involved in the excavation of a known individual, let alone a king of England.
“At the same time, we are in the midst of a new age of genetic research, with the ability to sequence entire genomes from ancient individuals and with them, those of pathogens that may have caused infectious disease.
“Sequencing the genome of Richard III is a hugely important project that will help to teach us not only about him, but ferment discussion about how our DNA informs our sense of identity, our past and our future.”
Dr Glenn Foard, reader in battlefield archaeology at the University of Huddersfield, told History Extra of his reservations: “As a battlefield archaeologist who has investigated the place where Richard III died, I was very keen to hear the results of the study of his skeleton. This is because both the weapon trauma and evidence of disability may shed light on his role in the events of 22nd August 1485 and earlier battles.
“In contrast, I cannot immediately see how DNA analysis will help in my area of study. However, given the speed with which research on the human genome is advancing, I guess this data might, one day, cast new and unexpected light on his abilities as a military commander.”
Richard’s skeleton was discovered underneath a Leicester council car park in September 2012, some 527 years after he was killed at the battle of Bosworth.
The remains were in February 2013 identified as those of the last Plantagenet king.
This article was first published at History Extra on 11 February 2014.
To listen to our October 2013 podcast, in which Philippa Langley and Michael Jones describe the discovery of Richard III’s remains, click here.
To listen to our Richard III special podcast, click here.