Richard III discovery spurs excitement, skepticism (+video)
Richard III's remains have been identified 'beyond reasonable doubt,' say researchers, but others are skeptical of the type of DNA match the team used to confirm his identity.
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The skeleton also exhibits a twisting of the spine known as scoliosis, which meshes with historical reports of Richard III as a "hunchback." (He wasn't actually a hunchback, the researchers point out — scoliosis may have made him look slightly lopsided, however.) The date of the bones and burial location also fit the Richard III identification.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures King Richard III lost and found
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For the University of Leicester team, however, the nail in the coffin of the identification was a DNA analysis that matched that of Michael Ibsen, a modern-day descendent of Richard III through the maternal line, along with DNA from another descendent on the maternal line who asked to be kept anonymous. The DNA used is mitochondrial DNA, which is contained in the part of the cell that transforms nutrients to energy; this type of DNA is passed down only through the maternal line.
Ancient DNA, however, is very susceptible to contamination, sparking some skepticism.
"Before being convinced of any aDNA study, it should be explicit that all possible cautions were taken to avoid potential contamination," Avila wrote in an email to LiveScience. "It is just part of the protocol." (aDNA refers to ancient DNA.)
Avila also warned that people could share mitochondrial DNA even if they didn't share a family tree. To be confident that Ibsen is related to the owner of the disinterred skeleton, the researchers must present statistics showing how common the DNA profile is in the United Kingdom, she said. Otherwise, the similarities between Ibsen's mitochondrial DNA and the skeleton's could be coincidental.
Avila noted that she doesn't necessarily disbelieve the team's conclusion that the skeleton is Richard III's, just that the DNA evidence isn't the strongest piece of the puzzle.
"It seems to me that osteological as well as archaeological evidence is stronger, however 'DNA evidence' sounds fancier so it looks like they used it as the hook to capture the attention of media," she said.
Announcing a discovery
Those caveats had some scientists wishing the Richard III team had published a peer-reviewed scientific paper (a process that can take months or more) before announcing their identification to the public. The Richard III team said today that they would submit their findings for peer-review and publication, though not before more media exposure. [Science of Death: 10 Tales from the Crypt & Beyond]
"I love the fact that there is so much excitement over Richard III discovery, but I'm also not keen on press-conferences for science," paleobiologist Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum London wrote on Twitter.