Scientists hoping to pin down Richard III's look

Richard III

Scientists have announced plans to sequence King Richard III's genomes in an attempt to discover more about the 15th century monarch, including what he really looked like.

Richard's remains were discovered in 2012 amid the buried ruins of an old friary beneath a Leicester car park.

Although portraits of the king exist, they were painted around 50 years after his death, in 1485 during the final battle of the bloody Wars of the Roses.

Scientists hope to find out the king's hair and eye colour and even the shade of his skin from mapping "all three billion letters of his genome".

Their work could also shed light on the health of Richard, who suffered from the spine-curving condition scoliosis, revealing what diseases he may have been predisposed to later in life had he not become the last king of England to die in battle.

They could examine whether Richard was predisposed to obesity or would have been likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease and even assess one element of his diet, whether or not he was lactose intolerant.

Richard will be the world's first known figure from ancient history to have his genomes sequenced.

In the past, only a small number of ancient anonymous individuals - Neanderthal specimens, a Greenlandic Inuit, a hunter gatherer from Spain and a 5,300-year-old frozen body found in the Alps - have had their genomes sequenced.

Scientists must carry out their work before Richard is re-interred, a process which has become the subject of a legal battle. His relatives are fighting for the remains to be buried at York Minster, claiming it was the king's wish, instead of the cathedral in Leicester, the city where he was found.

The team say that by mapping out his genome they will ensure that researchers can continue to learn about Richard's past even once his remains have been interred. As the genetic basis of new diseases becomes known, these can be tested for.

Dr Turi King at the University of Leicester - where scientists revealed the remains to be those of Richard III last year - is the geneticist carrying out the research.

She said sequencing Richard's genomes "will allow insight into his genetic makeup and predisposition towards disease", adding "one of the things I'm particularly interested in looking at is, can we look to see whether or not Richard III was predisposed towards scoliosis?"

Richard left no descendants but scientists will sequence the remains of his 17th generation nephew Michael Ibsen. It will be the first time any ancient figure has been DNA tested against a living relative.

Asked how she would respond if relatives complained that extracting Richard's DNA by grinding a bone sample was undignified, she said: "It's been 500 years. There are no close relatives alive today....He left no descendants himself but there are descendants of his family.

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Dr Dan O'Connor, head of medical humanities at the Wellcome Trust, which is helping to fund the work, said if research revealed that Richard had a different eye or hair colour to that of his paintings, in which he has dark hair and dark eyes, it would be of huge interest to historians.

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Dr O'Connor said that the work raised "ethical questions" such as "when is it acceptable for a historical figure to become public property"?

They hope to publish their work, which is costing £100,000, in a year's time and information will be placed on an online database for the public, historians, geneticists, archaeologists, teachers and scientists to use.

Scientists also hope to find funding to look at the DNA of the calculus on Richard's teeth to discover what he was eating.

The king, who reigned from 1483, was only found following a lengthy campaign by members of the Richard III Society.

The legal battle over where his remains should be buried was adjourned at the High Court last year.