When Canadian geneticist Turi King stepped to the microphone at the University of Leicester on Monday to announce the results of DNA testing on a skeleton believed to be Richard III, she had a signal for her father watching online in Vancouver.
For months, Prof. King had been sworn to secrecy about her findings because the university wanted to announce the results of all the different tests on the bones at one time. But she had told her father that if she was wearing a particular strand of pearls on the day of the announcement, the DNA was a match.
On Monday she wore the pearls. “That was my little signal to him,” she said later, clutching the necklace. “I wanted him to know.”
During the announcement, Prof. King struck a professorial tone as she calmly explained the results of her work to more than 100 journalists and academics, proving beyond a doubt that the skeleton was King Richard III, who died in battle in 1485. But afterward she could barely contain her enthusiasm for cracking one of the biggest forensic DNA cases in history.
“You don’t get this sort of thing to come along every day,” she said laughing. “It’s a dream.” Then she recalled the moment on Saturday when she knew the DNA results were definitive. “I went very quiet actually. It’s one of those things where you think, ‘Oh my goodness.’ And then I got up and did a little dance.”
Her work began last September after archaeologists at the university unearthed a male skeleton under a city parking lot in Leicester. The dig was the culmination of years of research by university staff and the Richard III Society to pinpoint the location of Richard’s remains. Richard died in a battle for the throne at Bosworth Field, about 25 kilometres away. The victor, Henry VII, buried Richard unceremoniously at Leicester’s Grey Friars monastery which Henry VIII later destroyed. Ever since, the whereabouts of Richard’s corpse remained a mystery.
The first examinations of the bones looked promising. The skeleton showed signs of battle injuries and had a crooked spine, consistent with historical descriptions of Richard. But DNA testing would be critical. And that’s where Prof. King came in.
Born in Vancouver and now a dual citizen of Canada and Britain, Prof. King had studied genetics at Cambridge University and moved on to the University of Leicester in 2000 to specialize in tracing migration patterns by using genetics. She joined the Richard project with her long-time Leicester colleague, Kevin Schurer, who had spent years tracking Richard’s genealogy.
Prof. Schurer had managed to find a direct descendant – Michael Ibsen, a Canadian from London, Ont., who lived in London. It was a critical turning point because now they had the possibility of finding a DNA match. Wasting no time, they took a sample of Mr. Ibsen’s spit and stored his DNA.
Prof. King joked about meeting Mr. Ibsen, also a dual citizen, for the first time at the excavation site. “We got chatting and I said, ‘I’m from Vancouver,’ and he was like ‘I’m from Ontario.’ And I said, ‘What a strange place for two Canadians to meet,’” she recalled.
The next challenge was getting a DNA sample from the 500-year old skeleton. Prof. King started with some small fragments from the teeth, grinding them into a powder and then extracting the DNA. “I was very hopeful,” she said. “But you just don’t know for certain if you are going to get DNA. So it wasn’t until you get that first bit and you think, oh my goodness, okay good, we’ve got DNA to work with.”
She focused on finding mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through women and is generally more plentiful in cells than y chromosomes. “If you are going to be looking at ancient DNA, mitochondrial is the thing that you go for first. it’s simply more prevalent,” she explained. After weeks of painstaking extraction, she found enough fragments to attempt a match with Mr. Ibsen, whose descent from Richard traces back entirely through the female line.
She also matched the DNA with another relative of Richard’s female line, whom researchers found only a few weeks ago and who has asked not to be identified. The work was then independently verified by a lab in France to ensure accuracy.
All three strands of DNA matched perfectly. That gave the university the final key piece of evidence and enough for lead archaeologist Richard Buckley to declare on Monday that the skeleton was Richard, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Prof. King is planning to do more tests on the bones, but she has no doubts. “I’m happy. I’m convinced,” she said.
Mr. Ibsen said he was stunned by the revelation. “To be honest I never thought there would be a match that could be so conclusive,” he said Monday. “I didn’t really see how it could be possible.” He’d only learned about his connection to Richard in 2004, when Prof. Shurer's group contacted his mother Joy in London, Ont.
By the time Prof. King was ready to take a DNA sample, Ms. Ibsen had died. Prof. King could have taken samples from Mr. Ibsen’s brother, Jeff, or sister, Leslie, but they lived in Canada and he was in London. “I was closer I guess,” he said. He’d come to Britain in 1985, after studying music at the University of Toronto and playing the French horn around Europe. He took a break from music to help a friend make some cabinets in London and never left, becoming a full time furniture maker.
Locating Mr. Ibsen and the skeleton at around the same time proved unbelievably fortunate for the researchers. None of Mr. Ibsen, his siblings or the other descendent of Richard has children, meaning the investigation would have ended after their deaths. “It’s extraordinary, really,” Mr. Ibsen said.
When told that the case resembled something out of the television program CSI, he replied: “At times it has reminded me of that.”
Not Prof. King. She laughed when asked about CSI. “I’ve never watched CSI. I have to admit.”
And she doubted the discovery will make her famous although it might end up in some of her undergraduate lectures. "I think it might find its way into some of my slides," she said with a smile.