Genetics and Genealogy

The University of Leicester’s Department of Genetics is famous as the birthplace of DNA fingerprinting, discovered here by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys in 1984 and widely used by governments and law enforcement since then. However, a different approach was required when the Department of Genetics’ Dr Turi King set out to investigate whether Skeleton 1 from the Greyfriars site was the remains of Richard III involving possible connections between individuals born five centuries – and many generations later – than Richard.

The vast majority of our DNA is a very complex mixture of DNA passed down to us from our ancestors. However, two segments of our DNA have a very simple pattern of inheritance: both mitochondrial DNA and the Y-chromosome are copied and passed down virtually unchanged (barring naturally occurring mutations) down through the generations and therefore could be used, after all these years, for the DNA identification purposes. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the female line and the Y chromosome through the male line. This is where the genealogical detective work came in: only individuals related to Richard III through an all-female line or an all-male line could be used as comparators for the DNA analysis.

Dr Turi King and Professor Kevin Schürer’s work is freely available online in their peer-reviewed academic paper, Identification of the remains of King Richard III.

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