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The True Richard III – How Professor Michael Hofreiter decodes the DNA of the English King

The skeleton of Richard III. Photo: University of Leicester.

The skeleton of Richard III. Photo: University of Leicester.

No, Richard III did not have a hunchback; Lars Eidinger is exaggerating. When the actor prepares for his role as king of England at Berlin’s Schaubühne and adds a hunch to his back, this is just theater. It is his way of suggesting the evil that has been ascribed to the English king for centuries. Whether Richard III actually was the unscrupulous monster that Shakespeare depicted in the darkest colors, Prof. Michael Hofreiter cannot say. But he does know that the hunchback is an exaggeration. “Richard III suffered from scoliosis, which caused a misalignment of his shoulders. That’s all. And he was neither dark-haired nor dark-eyed, as often portrayed, but had blonde hair and blue eyes.”

The Potsdam researcher can prove these details and many more. Together with a team of 15 specialists, he performed a scientific analysis of the king’s skeleton – and a skeleton discloses not only age, eye color, and hair color, but also cardiovascular problems, earwax consistency, and lactose tolerance. The meticulously isolated and purified DNA, which is now being decoded step by step in the laboratories on the Golm campus of the University of Potsdam, speaks a clear language: it reveals the genotype of the supreme military leader of the English army, who lost his life at Bosworth Field in 1485. In their laboratories, the researchers ground small samples of the royal bones and teeth, dissolved them, and sifted out the genetic material. In the end, there was almost a hundred percent certainty that these were the remains of Richard III.

But how did samples of the royal remains, which surfaced in the Middle English town of Leicester in 2012, end up at the University of Potsdam? Professor Hofreiter, who is dressed casually in jeans, t-shirt, and organic slippers, worked in England for four years. He knows the full story of the late recovery of Richard III. However, the long line of small animal figurines on Hofreiter’s desk indicates that many of his earlier projects must have been in a different field. He has researched extinct mammoths, cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, and wild horses; animal biodiversity is his true passion. “Fierce battles are raging in the field of human genetics, so I prefer to avoid them. Besides, sources of contamination with modern DNA are very high in number.” But he made an exception for the English king. In the laboratory, strict care is taken to ensure sterility. The researchers standing between the centrifuges and freezers wear gloves, and the most sensitive areas can only be entered via a security door system. By the end of the year the Professor of General Zoology and Evolutionary Adaptive Genomics, who grew up in Bavaria, hopes to finish this project and return to his research on extinct animals.

For Hofreiter, the research project on Richard III began in 2012 with a phone call from geneticist Turi King of Leicester University. “Turi King always wanted to learn more about old DNA from me. She told me that the Richard III Society was searching for the remains of their revered king.” Richard III was one of the few English kings whose skeleton was presumed lost. It was known that he had been laid to rest in the Franciscan monastery of Leicester – but Henry VIII had most monasteries razed, including this one. At least there were old maps of the former site. It turned out that the foundations of the monastery had been covered by a parking lot. So a small ditch was dug there on 25 August 2012 – and what a find they made! “It was stunning,” Michael Hofreiter says. The excavated skeleton was almost complete. “Only the feet were missing.” Scientists soon established that these were the remains of a man in his mid-30s; the wounds also fit with what we know about Richard III: The skeleton showed signs of eleven injuries, nine of which on the skull. All evidence pointed to Richard III.

But genetics would have the final say. For that, living descendants of the king had to be found. The genealogists followed many clues, combed through church registers, marriage records, land registers, and old newspapers – and came up with two maternal and five paternal relatives, some of whom were unaware of their aristocratic background. They were scattered across the country, and one of them was tracked down as far as Australia.

Richard III himself had no living descendants. All his offspring, born in or out of wedlock, died childless. So the researchers followed the lineages of his sisters and great-great-grandfather. “There are two regions in the human genome that are passed on almost unchanged from generation to generation: First, the mitochondrial DNA from the mitochondria, the energy sources of cells. These ‘power stations’ have their own genes, which make up about 16,000 of our three billion base pairs. They are maternally inherited, through the ovum,” Hofreiter explains. Second, the Y-chromosomes. These sex chromosomes are passed down from father to son. Of the seven descendants found, the five on the paternal lineage turned out to be unrelated to Richard III. In other words, since Edward III – the common ancestor of Richard III and his five descendants and Richard III’s great-great-grandfather – there must have been a “milkman’s child” in at least one of the lineages, that is, a child from an extramarital affair. The two maternal descendants were “real”. “It’s less likely there is a ‘milkman’s child’ in the maternal lineage,” Hofreiter says, “unless a baby was switched at birth”. The researchers were very lucky. They now have the technical capabilities to decode centuries-old DNA and opened the right window of opportunity at just the right time. “In a few decades, the lineage of Richard III will be extinct. The two maternal descendants have no children.”


On 4 February 2013, a press conference was held in Leicester, in which the definitive positive identification of the Richard III’s remains was announced. In December 2014 the genetic facts were published in a paper by 18 authors, led by Turi King and Michael Hofreiter. They would have liked to finish the entire project by the time the remains of Richard III were reburied as part of a one-week ceremony in Leicester in late March 2015. “But that was not possible. We are planning to have the genome completely analyzed by the end of the year – including any genetic defects,” Michael Hofreiter explains. A total of €50,000 has been earmarked for the project. “The costs of such analyses are much lower these days than they used to be. The first genome sequence extracted from fossils, the Neandertal genome, had a budget of €5 million. And now, just five years later, the same can be done for €10,000. Since we want to considerably improve quality, we have budgeted €50,000 for Richard III to get a high-quality genome that offers all sorts of answers.”

The bone dust has almost been used up. What was left was returned to Leicester, where it was buried with the remains of Richard III. Michael Hofreiter could not attend, for time reasons. He would also like to see the performance of Richard III at the Schaubühne – despite scientific inaccuracies. “But at the moment I have no time to go to the cinema or theater.” And he missed the Wave Gothic Meeting in Leipzig in May this year. Does Michael Hofreiter feel drawn to mortality in his spare time, too? “No,” he says cheerfully. He just enjoys the music and the great atmosphere of the city where he has been researching old DNA for over 10 years. In his early days, he worked in the laboratory; these days he spends most of his time in front of his computer writing manuscripts and applications for third-party funding.

The genome, or genetic material, of a living organism or virus is the entirety of material carriers of the heritable information of a cell or virus particle: chromosomes, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA) in the case of RNA viruses, in which RNA (not DNA) is the carrier of information. In a more abstract sense, the genome represents the entirety of heritable information. Thanks to the rapid development of modern techniques, much progress has been achieved in genome analysis in recent years. It is estimated that about 20,000 researchers worldwide are involved in decoding the human genome alone. 

The Researcher

Michael Hofreiter studied biology in Munich and earned his PhD at Leipzig University in 2002. Until 2010 he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He held a professorship in evolutionary biology and ecology at the University of York until 2013, when he was appointed Professor of General Zoology/Evolutionary Adaptive Genomics at the University of Potsdam.

Contact

Universität Potsdam
Institut für Biochemie und Biologie
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25
14476 Potsdam
E-Mail: michael.hofreiter@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

This research is linked to the research initiative NEXUS: Earth Surface Dynamics, which clusters approaches from various scientific disciplines in the Berlin-Brandenburg area within the overarching theme of Earth surface dynamics. The University of Potsdam, along with its partnering institutions the Helmholtz-Centre Potsdam - German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and partners from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), the Museum für Naturkunde - Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science (MfN) and the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB) therefore combines the outstanding expertise from geo-, bio-, climate and data sciences.  

Text: Heidi Jäger, Translation: Monika Wilke
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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