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University of Cambridge scientists help sequence Beethoven’s genome

Ludwig van Beethoven’s genome has been sequenced for the first time by an international team of scientists using five genetically matching locks of his hair.

The study’s lead author is Tristan Begg, a final year biological anthropology PhD researcher from the Department of Archaeology and Clare Hall, University of Cambridge.

Beethoven. Picture: iStock
Beethoven. Picture: iStock

The research uncovers important information about the composer’s health and poses new questions about his recent ancestry and cause of death.

The study, published in Current Biology, shows that DNA from five locks of hair – all dating from the last seven years of Beethoven’s life – originate from a single individual matching the composer’s documented ancestry.

By combining genetic data with closely examined provenance histories, researchers conclude these five locks are “almost certainly authentic”.

Tristan said: “We can surmise from Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’, which he used during the last decade of his life, that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes being consumed.

“While most of his contemporaries claim his consumption was moderate by early 19th century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources, and this still likely amounted to quantities of alcohol known today to be harmful to the liver.

“If his alcohol consumption was sufficiently heavy over a long enough period of time, the interaction with his genetic risk factors presents one possible explanation for his cirrhosis.”

Beethoven’s hearing loss has been linked to several potential causes, among them diseases with various degrees of genetic contributions. Investigation of the authenticated hair samples did not reveal a simple genetic origin of the hearing loss.

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The research was led by Cambridge, the Ira F Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, the American Beethoven Society, KU Leuven, FamilyTreeDNA, the University Hospital Bonn and the University of Bonn, the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Axel Schmidt at the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Hospital of Bonn said: “Although a clear genetic underpinning for Beethoven’s hearing loss could not be identified, we caution that such a scenario cannot be strictly ruled out.

“Reference data, which are mandatory to interpret individual genomes, are steadily improving. It is therefore possible that Beethoven’s genome will reveal hints for the cause of his hearing loss in the future.”

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