Scientists content this winter: Genes show car park skeleton is Richard the third

By Gareth Macdonald contact

- Last updated on GMT

Peter Cook as Richard III in BBC comedy Blackadder
Peter Cook as Richard III in BBC comedy Blackadder

Related tags: Dna

Richard the III was blond, blue-eyed and may owe a substantial parking fine based on new genetic research that solves a 529-year old missing persons case.

In 2012, when archaeologists claimed a skeleton found under a Leicester car park was that of 1483 crown wearer of the year, King Richard III, the news travelled​ farther and faster than any medieval monarch ever did, horse or not.

Two years on, and the researchers claim to have conclusive proof their archeological hunch was accurate in a paper in the journal, Nature Communications​.

Lead researcher Turi King from the University of Leicester, told her team is 99.999% sure the bones are Richard’s after comparing extracted mitochondrial DNA with that of modern day descendants of his sister, Margaret of York.

Dr King also said the team had confirmed Richard was blond haired and blue eyed by “looking at 24 SNPs [single nucleotide polymorphisms] associated with 11 genes that we know code for hair and eye colour traits.”

This description matches (sort of) the earliest surviving portrait of the last monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, which is the Arched-Frame Portrait in the Society of Antiquaries in London​.

Richard III Arched-Frame Portrait in the Society of Antiquaries.

Personalised meds 

While the focus of King’s team was archaeological, the analytical techniques used to confirm the identity of the ancient skeleton are similar to those used to determine if a patient is likely to benefit from a particular medicine.

She said that: “I know there has been work looking at genetic make-up of individuals knowing that individuals with certain genetic make-up will respond better to certain treatments than others​” adding that “so, yes, there is a link of sorts there​.”

The Roche monoclonal antibody (mAb) Herceptin (trastuzumab) is one example of a drug where genetic testing is vital.

Patients are only treated with Herceptin if it can be proved that their cancer cells overexpress the gene for the drug’s target, the HER2 receptor protein.

Similarly, Novartis’ drug Gleevec (imatinib) is only given to cancer patients whose tumors are Philidelphia chromosome positive, which means they possess a faulty gene that is created when parts of chromosome 9 and 22 switch places.

'Royal' 'family'

The team also tested Richard’s DNA using techniques employed in paternity suits and found that “the male line of descent is broken at one or more points in the line between Richard III and living male-line relatives descended from Henry Somerset, 5th​ Duke of Beaufort​.”

Kevin Schürer, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Leicester who was part of King’s team, said: “The break in the Y-chromosome line is not overly surprising given the incidence of non-paternity, but does pose interesting speculative questions over succession as a result.”

King and her team plan to sequence Richard III’s complete genome to learn more about the last king to die in battle.

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