Researchers extracted DNA from Beethoven’s hair to provide insight on his bad health—and discovered a family secret in the process.

Countless exceptionally imaginative individuals have suffered the fate of having their lives significantly shortened due to sickness. A few prominent names among them include Johannes Vermeer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jane Austen, Franz Schubert, and Emily Bront.

Even though Ludwig van Beethoven lived to be 56 years old before his death in 1827, his life was still considered relatively brief. The brevity of his life leaves us wondering what else he could have accomplished had he enjoyed better health.

Throughout his adult years, Beethoven struggled with constant pain and ill health, along with terrible hearing loss. He would often contemplate these sufferings in agony, particularly his hearing loss, harboring a wish that they would one day be comprehended and brought to light.

There were moments when he felt so hopeless that he considered taking his own life, and then there were moments when he halted all creative activity.

Beethoven’s health has been thoroughly scrutinized in multiple books that were written based on records from that period. Conversely, my team and I decided to approach this topic differently by delving into the clues presented by Beethoven’s DNA, or his genome.

In a recent publication in Current Biology, our research has uncovered both expected findings and unexpected revelations.

Starting the seeding

Tristan Begg, a biological anthropology student who had a great passion for Beethoven, marked the start of our multinational collaboration during his time at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

During her time as a volunteer at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San José State University, Begg had an encounter with the center’s director, a well-known music historian named William Meredith.

Begg himself has been the sole full-time contributor to the project, which began its inception eight years ago before undergoing extensive development with the help of numerous specialists. The project’s multidisciplinary nature has presented a series of complex obstacles, but it has ultimately culminated in its publication. Begg, who is currently in his final year of his Ph.D. studies at the University of Cambridge, was responsible for initially sowing the project’s seed.

Where did the DNA originate?

The task of dissecting and examining the DNA of deceased individuals (and other creatures) is remarkably difficult, posing greater difficulties compared to that of living tissues. Nevertheless, the advancements made in technology have revolutionized the area of ancient DNA research.

Typically, when working with human remains, teeth and the petrous bone are considered the most optimal sources for DNA. However, the bones and teeth of Beethoven were not accessible to our team.

Hair was the only thing that could be obtained. During the time of Beethoven, it was popular to gather strands from notable individuals or cherished acquaintances. Both public and private collections preserve an abundance of hair that is believed to have come from Beethoven.

DNA obtained from hair without roots is comparatively more challenging to work with due to its limited availability and degraded nature. It occurs in fragmented sequences, which need to be meticulously assembled using specialized computer programs to create a comprehensive genome sequence as far as possible.

How were the doors built?

Samples taken from eight various locks believed to have been owned by Beethoven were utilized in our study. Interestingly, five of these samples contained DNA from a single male, with noticeable damage suggesting that it may have originated from around the early 1800s.

Through collaboration with FamilyTreeDNA, the ancestral origins of this individual have been traced back to western-central Europe. Our level of certainty is high, as we possess two locks that have accompanying provenance records dating all the way back to the 1820s, unmistakably linking the individual to the classical musician Beethoven.

Another trio of locks, having identical genetics to the previous two, also possessed reliable traceability records, though not completely uninterrupted.

It was extremely challenging to question the origin of these hair samples, as they possessed a flawless genetic match and were accompanied by exceptional documentation of their histories, all gathered from a total of five sources. The evidence undoubtedly confirmed that the hair had indeed belonged to none other than Beethoven.

Beethoven is said to have only three locks of hair, but out of them, two are distinctively different from the remaining five. It is apparent that one of those two locks belongs to a woman. Unfortunately, we do not have knowledge about the origin of these hair strands being associated with Beethoven.

The basis of prior research into Beethoven’s alleged lead poisoning, one of the mistaken attributions, holds significance in and of itself. However, our discoveries have overturned this conclusion.

Insufficient DNA was collected from the eighth lock, making it impossible to confirm its authenticity.

What we know about Beethoven’s lifestyle habits

It was surprising to discover that Beethoven’s renowned hearing loss had no significant genetic basis, as we had initially thought. Although the great composer experienced adult-onset hearing loss, which could have been linked to genetic factors, our findings indicate that this is rarely the case.

Throughout a lengthy span of time, he struggled with a variety of medical issues that predominantly revolved around his gastrointestinal tract, resulting in bouts of discomfort and bowel issues, as well as afflictions in his liver.

During our collaboration with the medical genetics group at Bonn University, it was concluded that Beethoven did not exhibit any hereditary vulnerability to specific gastrointestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease, or lactose intolerance, which were previously suggested. However, our primary focus was on identifying patterns related to liver disease.

It was previously recorded that Beethoven suffered from jaundice. However, Begg’s research revealed that Beethoven possessed two copies of a specific variant of the PNPLA3 gene, which is connected to liver cirrhosis. He also carried single copies of two gene variants responsible for hemochromatosis, a liver-damaging condition.

Surprisingly, it was discovered in the analysis that Beethoven had contracted the hepatitis B virus in his last months (and maybe even prior to that). The prevalence of hepatitis B in Europe during that era is uncertain due to a lack of information.

Beethoven’s liver disease risk could have been worsened by his consumption of alcohol. Surviving records mention his drinking habits but do not provide any specific details, leading to debates about the amount and type of alcohol he consumed.

After reviewing the records thoroughly, Begg arrived at the conclusion that Beethoven’s intake of alcohol was probably not unusual for the period and location, although it may have exceeded today’s recognized harmful levels.

The lies of the Beethoven family

We were in for another shock as we pursued our research. Our objective was to establish a connection between Beethoven’s genetic profile and that of surviving relatives belonging to his lineage. Specifically, we zeroed in on the Y chromosome, which is exclusively passed down from one male generation to the next, much like surnames in many European cultures.

Samples of DNA were collected from five male individuals who shared the surname Beethoven and resided in Belgium, where the name originally comes from. Despite being unrelated to each other, they all showed a striking similarity in their Y chromosome, indicating they might have descended from Aert van Beethoven (1535–1609), a common male ancestor.

It came as a shock to discover that Ludwig van Beethoven possessed a distinct Y chromosome. Despite exploring alternative reasoning, we concluded that during the seven generations between Aert and Ludwig, a person’s legal and social father may not have been their biological father.

It remains unclear, given the present evidence, which particular era this could pertain to.

However you manage it.

Further analyses may uncover additional insights, and thus, we are releasing the genome we sequenced to the public.

Our project demonstrates the vast potential of DNA analysis beyond just Beethoven. It proves that valuable insights can be garnered from seemingly unimportant sources of DNA, like past hair samples.

Until now, the field of population genetics has rarely focused on studying an individual at a microscopic level. This is a challenging task, but our research proves that it can be accomplished.

Is there a possibility that another person needs to be questioned? It could be someone who has a query about themselves that requires an answer or someone about whom others are asking questions.

Journal information: Current Biology

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