DNA Past and Present

DNA past and future_historical

Kevin Sullivan considers how DNA identifications of high profile figures from the distant past may shed light on the potential for mass identification today

In 2012, archaeologists exhumed a human skeleton from a mediaeval grave that had been covered over by a municipal carpark in the English city of Leicester. DNA extracted from the skeleton was compared with DNA from a blood sample provided by a living descendant of King Richard III’s elder sister, Anne of York. This resulted in a perfect match, indicating that the skeleton belonged to Richard, the last Plantagenet King of England.

Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which (as every schoolchild once learned) was the dramatic event that “ended the Middle Ages and ushered in the Modern Era”. History has not been kind to the vanquished monarch. He was blamed posthumously (and on dubious evidence) for murdering his brother’s children (Shakespeare’s “princes in the tower”) and he is generally portrayed as a pitiless and Machiavellian hunchback. Since he lost his last battle, his remains were buried without ceremony, hence the centuries of uncertainty over his final resting place.

The discovery and identification – through clever historical detective work and sophisticated genetic testing – turned Leicester, an industrial city in the English Midlands best known for manufacturing socks and shoes – into a rather improbable tourist destination. This year, the Smithsonian Institution’s magazine rated the city Number 12 out of 25 “great new places to see” around the world.

Even more remarkable was the way in which the late and not greatly lamented king’s identification highlighted the power of DNA. A buccal swab taken from a 17th generation great nephew of Richard’s sister was sufficient to match the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the royal skeleton – the passage of 527 years didn’t affect the validity of the exercise.

The incontestable nature of findings based on genetic matching has swayed even those who may by temperament or culture be inclined to skepticism. In September, the Russian Interior Ministry announced that the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, Alexandra’s sister, Elizabeth Feodorovna, and Nicholas’ grandfather, Alexander II were to be exhumed with a view to undertaking DNA analysis. The object is to satisfy members of the Russian Orthodox Church that two bodies discovered in Yekaterinburg near the site of the 1918 execution of the Romanov family by the Bolsheviks are in fact those of Nicholas and Alexandra’s children, Alexei and Maria. As Alexei and Maria are expected to be canonized, church officials are keen to ensure that the remains, which will become objects of veneration, are authentic.

These rather picaresque stories of DNA identification involve well known historical figures and have garnered headlines around the world – but they have important things to say about what genetic matching can achieve in cases involving ordinary citizens, not just kings and emperors.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that around one billion of the earth’s seven billion inhabitants is on the move at any given time. The Mediterranean migration crisis has provided countless portraits of tragedy that convey with tremendous force the fact that migration is a matter of humanity rather than statistics – migration isn’t simply a story of difficult and dangerous journeys: it’s a story of difficult and dangerous journeys that many migrants never complete. Natural disasters, political repression and organized crime all fuel the global missing persons casualty list.

The power of DNA to identify a skeleton after centuries is the same power that can be brought to bear when people go missing today, when an unidentified body is washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean a thousand miles from the place where the deceased began their journey.

DNA identification isn’t the answer to the global challenge of missing persons – but it’s an important part of the answer.

In the Western Balkans, ICMP pioneered an innovative identification data management system that made it possible to compare through an automated “blind testing” process DNA from blood samples provided by relatives of the missing with DNA extracted from the tissue and bone of unidentified remains. Over the last 15 years the results of this technique have been extraordinary – an exponential rise in the number of identifications. ICMP is now developing an online function that is making it possible to replicate this approach in other parts of the world.

The cases of Richard III and the Romanovs are also instructive in what they tell us about non-science considerations.

The bodies of the Russian and English monarchs were exhumed in accordance with judicial and administrative procedures that lay out clearly how such exhumations should be conducted. There is a legal framework within which the archeological work and the DNA analysis takes place. It’s not simply a matter of digging and matching.

The experience of ICMP in the Western Balkans and elsewhere is that DNA is not a magic wand. It cannot solve the global challenge of missing persons – but when placed in the context of a functioning system of accounting for the missing, with the active participation of technical and legal experts and family members, it is an invaluable tool.

The descendants of the Romanovs and the Plantaganets still enjoy a certain name recognition. This is not the case with most of the relatives of missing migrants or those who are lost as a result of natural disasters or because of crime or persecution – which is all the more reason to apply this extraordinary science in an optimal way.

It’s not about kings and queens but about ordinary human beings. DNA technology and the processes and protocols that make it useful can help to reduce the suffering of the tens of thousands of families living today with the pain and uncertainty that arises when a loved one is missing.