Beethoven’s DNA has been sequenced from a lock of his hair. That, alone, is amazing news – but that’s just the beginning!
The scientific paper was released this week, and the news media is awash with the unexpected surprises that Beethoven’s DNA has revealed for us. Better yet, his DNA is in the FamilyTreeDNA database and you just might match. Are you related to Beethoven?
You can check your autosomal results if you’ve taken a Family Finder test, or you can upload your DNA file from either AncestryDNA, 23andMe or MyHeritage to find out if you match Beethoven. Here are the download/upload instructions for each company.
But first, let’s talk about this amazing sequence of events (pardon the pun) and scientific discoveries!
Beethoven’s Genome is Sequenced
Everyone knows the famous, genius composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. He was born in 1770 in Bonn on the banks of the Rhine River and died in 1827 in Vienna. You can listen to a snippet of his music, here.
We are all about to know him even better.
Yesterday, amid much media fanfare and a press release, the genome and related findings about Beethoven were released by a team of renowned scientists in a collaborative effort. Research partners include the University of Cambridge, the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, the American Beethoven Society, KU Leuven, the University Hospital Bonn, the University of Bonn, the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and FamilyTreeDNA. I want to congratulate all of these amazing scientists for brilliant work.
Beethoven’s Hair Revelations
In the past, we were unable to retrieve viable DNA from hair, but advances have changed that in certain settings. If you’re eyeing grandma’s hair wreath – the answer is “not yet” for consumer testing. Just continue to protect and preserve your family heirlooms as described in this article.
Thankfully, Beethoven participated in the Victorian custom of giving locks of hair as mementos. Eight different locks of hair attributed to Beethoven were analyzed, with five being deemed authentic and one inconclusive. Those locks provided enough DNA to obtain a great deal of different types of information.
Beethoven’s whole genome was sequenced to a 24X coverage level, meaning the researchers were able to obtain 24 good reads of his DNA, providing a high level of confidence in the accuracy of the sequencing results.
What Was Discovered?
Perhaps the most interesting discovery, at least to genealogists, is that someplace in Beethoven’s direct paternal lineage, meaning his Y-DNA, a non-paternal event (NPE) occurred. The paper’s primary authors referred to this as an “extra-pair-paternity event” but I’ve never heard that term before.
Based on testing of other family members, that event occurred sometime between roughly 1572 and Ludwig’s conception in 1770. The reported lack of a baptismal record had already raised red flags with researchers relative to Beethoven’s paternity, but there is nothing to suggest where in the five generations prior to Ludwig von Beethoven that genetic break occurred. Perhaps testing additional people in the future will provide more specificity.
We also discovered that Beethoven was genetically predisposed to liver disease. He was plagued with jaundice and other liver-related issues for much of his later life.
Beethoven, prior to his death, left a handwritten directive asking his physicians to describe and publicize his health issues which included progressive hearing loss to the point of deafness, persistent gastrointestinal problems and severe liver issues that eventually resulted in his death. Cirrhosis of the liver was widely believed to be his cause of death.
In addition, DNA in the hair revealed that Beethoven had contracted Hepatitis B, which also affects the liver.
The combination of genetic predisposition to liver disease, Hepatitis B and heavy alcohol use probably sealed his fate.
Additional health issues that Beethoven experienced are described in the paper, published in Current Biology.
It’s quite interesting that during this analysis the team devised a method to use triangulated segments that they mapped to various geographic locations, as illustrated above in a graphic from the paper. Fascinating work!!!
As a partner in this research, Cambridge University created a beautiful website, including a video which you can watch, here.
Beethoven’s Later Years
This portrait of Beethoven was painted in 1820 just 7 years before his death, at 56 years of age. By this time, he had been completely deaf for several years, had stopped performing and appearing in public. Ironically, he still continued to compose, but was horribly frustrated and discouraged, even contemplating suicide. I can’t even fathom the depths of despair for a person with his musical genius to become deaf, slowly, like slow torture.
His personal life didn’t fare much better. In 1812, he wrote this impassioned love letter to his “Immortal Beloved” whose identity has never been revealed, if it was ever known by anyone other than Beethoven himself. The letter was never sent, which is why we have it today.
The FamilyTreeDNA research team not only probed Beethoven’s genealogy, they tested people whose DNA should have matched, but as it turns out, did not.
Beethoven’s mitochondrial DNA haplogroup is H1b1+16,362C, plus a private mutation at C16,176T. Perhaps in the future, Beethoven’s additional private mutation will become a new haplogroup if other members of this haplogroup have it as well. If you have tested your mitochondrial DNA, check and see if Beethoven is on your match list. If you haven’t tested, now’s a great time.
According to the academic paper, Beethoven’s Y-DNA haplogroup is I-Z139, but when viewing Figure 5 in the paper, here, I noticed that Beethoven’s detailed haplogroup is given as I-FT396000, which you can see in the Discover project, here.
Viewing the Time Tree and the Suggested Projects, I noticed that there are four men with that haplogroup, some of whom are from Germany.
The ancestor’s surnames of the I-FT396000 men, as provided in public projects include:
- Pitzschke (from Germany)
- Hartmann (from Germany)
- Schauer (from Germany)
If your Y-DNA matches Beethoven at any level, you might want to upgrade if you haven’t taken the Big Y-700 test. It would be very interesting to see when and where your most recent common ancestor with Beethoven lived. You just never known – if you match Beethoven, your known ancestry might help unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s unknown paternal lineage.
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