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Scientists to map genome of medieval English king Richard III

A television image of King Richard III's skull is seen next to a portrait of him during a news conference in Leicester, central England Febr
A television image of King Richard III's skull is seen next to a portrait of him during a news conference in Leicester, central England Febr

By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent

LONDON (Reuters) - A year after they revealed a twisted skeleton found under a car park as the mortal remains of King Richard III, scientists in Britain plan to grind samples of his ancient bones and use them to map his genome.

The project, which may alter perceptions of the last king of England to die in battle more than 500 years ago, aims to learn about Richard's ancestry and health, and provide a genetic archive for historians, researchers and the public.

In one of the most significant archaeological finds of recent English history, the skeleton - with a cleaved skull and curved spine - was dug up from under a car park in the English city of Leicester and unveiled last year as that of the king slain as he fought to keep his crown at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

His death ended the Plantagenet dynasty and ushered in the Tudors under Henry VII.

After taking a small sample of bone from the skeleton, Turi King of the University of Leicester genetics department will grind it to a powder, extract DNA and seek to piece together as much as possible of Richard's genetic code.

"It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. You tile it together to get as much of the genome as possible," King told reporters at a briefing about the project on Tuesday.

Richard III's place in history is contested. William Shakespeare cast him as a hunch-backed tyrant who murdered two princes in the Tower of London and died in battle crying out: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richard's supporters argue his reputation was tarnished deliberately to cement Tudor rule.

BURIAL

Richard III's remains and any samples taken from them are to be re-interred at some point - although the issue of when and where is now a legal dispute.

The University of Leicester, whose archaeologists found and exhumed the remains, were given permission from Britain's Ministry of Justice to re-bury the king at Leicester cathedral.

Richard's descendants began legal action arguing there should be a judicial review of the decision. They want him buried in York, the northern England power base of his 26-month reign.

King said as the remains, including any samples taken by her team, are to be reburied, it was timely to extract the DNA and sequence his genome now for use as a future research resource.

She warned, however, that since the remains are so old, his DNA is fragmented and may not produce a complete genetic map.

"There may be gaps, but we'll just have to go with what we can get. That's science, unfortunately," she said.

King said the aim of the research was to gain insight into Richard's genetic make-up, including his susceptibility to certain diseases and his hair and eye color.

"One of the things I'm going to be particularly interested in is ... can we see whether or not Richard III was predisposed towards scoliosis (a condition that causes curvature of the spine), for example," she said.

The gene mapping is also expected to shed light on his genetic ancestry and relationship to modern human populations.

King's team also plan to map the genome of one of his family's descendants, Michael Ibsen - a Canadian-born furniture maker now living in London who genealogists said was the direct descendant of Richard's sister, Anne of York.

An initial analysis of the DNA of his mitochondria - the batteries that power the body's cells - which is passed down the maternal line, confirmed Ibsen and Richard III shared the same lineage and a more detailed study is due to be published shortly. King said her project will look for any other segments of DNA the distant relatives might share.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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