Genomes of Richard III and his living descendant to be sequenced

The genomes of King Richard III and one of his direct living descendants are to be sequenced in a project funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys. The project will be led by Dr Turi King of the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester.

The aim is to shed new light on the ancestry and health of the last king of England to die in battle, and provide a complete archive of information that historians, scientists and the public will be able to access and use.

A skeleton was excavated from a car park in Leicester in September 2012 and, in February 2013, a team of archaeologists and scientists from the University of Leicester revealed that it was the remains of Richard III. His remains and any samples taken from them are scheduled to be reinterred, so Dr Turi King and colleagues plan to sequence his genome and make it freely accessible as a resource to researchers wishing to analyse and interrogate its genetic information.

Richard III will be one of only a small number of ancient individuals to have had their genomes sequenced. Others include Otzi the Iceman, Neanderthal specimens, a Denisovan, a Greenlandic Inuit and a hunter-gatherer from Spain. Richard will be the first ancient individual of known identity to have his genome sequenced. This will be carried out in collaboration with Professor Michael Hofreiter at the University of Potsdam.

Analysis of Richard's genome will allow insight into his genetic make-up, including susceptibility to certain diseases, hair colour and eye colour - and, as the genetic bases of other diseases becomes known, these too can be examined for. The analysis is also expected to shed light on his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations. In addition, next-generation sequencing technologies will allow the researchers to detect DNA from other organisms such as pathogens. Whole-genome sequencing from Otzi the Iceman found the first known human infection with Lyme disease, for example.

Dr King says: “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.”

In addition to sequencing the remains of Richard III, Dr King and colleagues will also sequence one of his living relatives, Michael Ibsen. An initial analysis of the DNA of their mitochondria – the batteries that power the cells in our bodies – which is passed down the maternal line, confirmed the genealogical evidence that the two men shared the same lineage. A more detailed analysis is due to be published shortly. This new project will allow researchers to look for any other segments of DNA that these distant relatives share.

Dr Dan O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities at the Wellcome Trust, says: “We are delighted that, through our Research Resources grants programme, we are able to support this innovative and fascinating work. Sequencing Richard III’s genome will not only give us a unique insight into the past, but have a profound impact on the way we think about disease and heredity in our own genomic age. By making this genome available to all, we will ensure that we can continue to learn about Richard’s past – both personal and historic – even once his remains have been interred.”

Professor Gordon Marshall, Director of the Leverhulme Trust said: “The Leverhulme Trust has a long-standing tradition of funding research that crosses the boundaries between academic disciplines. We are pleased to support Dr Turi King’s project to sequence Richard III’s genome, which brings together archaeology, anthropology and genetics in a particularly innovative and unusually tangible way.”

The University of Leicester requires research projects concerning human subjects to receive ethical approval. The project has been reviewed by the Ethics Committee of the University of Leicester’s College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology.

Notes for editors

About the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is a leading UK university committed to international excellence through the creation of world changing research and high quality, inspirational teaching. Leicester is the most socially inclusive of Britain's top 20 leading universities. The University of Leicester is The Times/Sunday Times 2014 University of the Year Runner-Up and is the only university to have won Times Higher Education awards in seven consecutive years - notably, in 2008-9, University of the Year. In awarding the title, the THE judges cited Leicester’s ability to “evidence commitment to high quality, a belief in the synergy of teaching and research and a conviction that higher education is a power for good”. Leicester was, said the judges, "elite without being elitist". Leicester is ranked 13th out of 119 institutions by The Guardian University Guide and 14th out of 121 institutions by The Times/Sunday Times, and it is ranked among the top two per cent in the world by the QS World University Rankings, Taiwan World University Rankings and THE World University Rankings.

About the Leverhulme Trust

The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 the Trust has provided grants and scholarships for research and education; today it is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing over £60 million a year.

About Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, one of Britain’s leading scientists - known as the ‘Father of Genetic Fingerprinting’ - is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leicester, where he made his landmark discovery in 1984. Professor Jeffreys joined the Department of Genetics in 1977 as a Lecturer, and has remained at Leicester, where he has held the positions of Professor of Genetics and Royal Society Wolfson Research Professor. While studying variation in human DNA in 1984 he discovered variation in minisatellites, and developed DNA fingerprinting. Shortly afterwards he demonstrated that the technology had a host of applications ranging from criminal investigations, paternity and immigration disputes through to conservation biology. In more recent years, Professor Jeffreys has made key contributions to our understanding of fundamental processes of change in the human genome.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.