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DNA from beard solves 130-yr-old riddle of Darwin's mystery illness

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A geneticist has sequenced Charles Darwin’s DNA from two of his beard hairs and identified the debilitating mystery illness from which the ‘Father of Evolution’ suffered for most of his life – he had Crohn’s disease.

The findings feature in a new Channel 4 documentary series, Dead Famous DNA, in which Mark Evans sets out to track down the remains of some of history’s most famous figures, including Adolf Hitler, Elvis Presley and Napoleon. A team of leading scientists then attempt to extract DNA from the relics and analyse their genome to solve some of the mysteries associated with them, such as what killed Elvis Presley at 42.

In the second programme in the series - which airs on Wednesday, April 2nd on Channel 4 – Dr Stephan Schuster, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Pennyslvania State University analyses two of Darwin’s 130-year-old beard hairs which came from his great, great grandson.

Darwin suffered from a debilitating mystery illness for most of his life. He had stomach problems, diarrhoea, skin issues, heart symptoms, fatigue, vomiting and headaches. Desperate to find a cure, Darwin tried eighteen different doctors.

“Historians and scientists have long debated the cause of Darwin’s sickness,” says Mark Evans. “Did he catch a tropical disease? Was he poisoned by arsenic? Did he have Dysentery? Until now, no definite diagnosis had been possible. Most of Darwin’s children were also sickly. Three out of the ten died, including his beloved eldest daughter Annie. Darwin suspected he had an inherited illness and blamed himself for marrying his first cousin and passing on his poor health.”

Professor Schuster extracted half of Darwin’s DNA from the beard hairs and has been able to show that the scientist suffered from Crohn’s disease, a condition which was not identified until fifty years after Darwin’s death. The DNA from the hairs has also been cross-matched with members of the Darwin family.

Sequencing the human genome from a couple of strands of beard has never been attempted before and, since Darwin’s death in 1882, the DNA would have degraded, reducing the chances of sequencing his complete genome. Fortunately, the hair was protected from the damaging effects of the sun in an envelope inside his daughter’s writing box.

The ground-breaking science provides some fascinating genetic information. Professor Stephan Schuster found a total of twenty-one markers for Crohn’s disease, five of them being diagnostic, including the major marker on chromosome 16.

In addition, he found genes associated with baldness (on chromosome 20), enhanced memory (chromosome 22) and thrill seeking (chromosome 11), all attributes demonstrated by Darwin.

Mark Evans says: “One of the aims of the series is to create a Noah’s Ark of dead famous DNA for generations to come. It seems so apt to be using modern science to sequence the genome of one of the greatest ever scientists who unlocked the secret of how life evolved on Earth. Darwin was right, he did have a heritable disease that may have been passed on to his sickly children. He’d suffered first hand from the effects of his own theory of natural selection, where the strong survive and the weak perish.”

Professor Stephan Schuster says: “It really opens a window to a whole new field of understanding history, and understanding the biography of a person who made a major change in how we think about our outside world today.”

Professor Schuster’s analysis of Elvis Presley’s DNA, extracted from samples of a lock of his hair, also featured in the series and showed that the singer could have suffered from a heart muscle disease which might explain his early death.

The second part of Dead Famous DNA will be shown on Channel 4 on Wednesday, April 2nd at 9pm. Made by Double Act productions, it is produced, written and directed by Rob Davis. The executive producer is Alistair Cook.

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