May 27 2016

Identifying Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus

Interesting CasesMediaMeetingSpeaker

Marie Allen of Uppsala University shares how her team identified the remains of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus through DNA analysis.





My name is Marie Allen, and I’m a professor in Forensic Genetics as Uppsala University in Sweden. I work mainly with forensic research. We work quite a lot with trying to enhance the methods and technologies that we’re using for degraded samples, so samples that are very old or contain small amounts of DNA.

They started to work on DNA analysis, and then they found that they didn’t have any reference material – no living relatives of Copernicus that they could find in Poland. So, to make a long story short, they ended up searching for reference material in Sweden, because we have a lot of books that were owned by Copernicus. This is a war bounty that we’ve had in Sweden since 1626. IT’s his own books from his own library, so we assume that he used these books for many, many years.


Identifying the Father of Astronomy, Nicolaus Copernicus, through #DNA analysis. Click To Tweet


We were involved in doing mitochondrial DNA analysis, because the hairs we found in Copernicus books, or one of the books, was shed hairs. They normally contain very few cells or copies of DNA. In this case, they were very old, so even less DNA, to assume.

We did the mitochondrial DNA sequencing, the Sanger sequencing. We could get profiles out of four of nine hairs. These four samples that gave profiles, two were two different profiles that did not match the remains, and two matched the remains. So, we had two hairs that finally matched the remains that were found in Frombork [Cathedral] in Poland.

In addition to the mitochondrial DNA analysis that we did of hairs, we have done STR analysis – ySTR and also some SNP typing. This has been done together with some colleagues in Poland. We have looked at the marker for eye color and we have seen that he mostly had light eye color.

For the future, we would like to look at some more SNPs. We do have a bit of sample left from Copernicus and we would like to see if we can look at some other markers for phenotype, for BMI, for length, for facial features, and so on.

We have done some other historical cases previously. We have worked on the remains or the identification of the remains of Carin Göring, who was the wife of Hermann Göring, the Nazi leader – Hitler’s closest man. So, we worked on that. We could identify these remains. We compared them to a relative of Carin, and these remains could be reburied in Sweden again. They were taken from Germany.

We’ve also worked on another historical case, or story, the identification of St. Bridget or St. Birgitta of Sweden. So, we’ve had two skulls in mid-Sweden in an abbey, and these were said to have belonged to St. Bridget and her daughter Catherine. And again, we did mitochondrial DNA analysis. We could see that they did not share mitochondrial DNA, meaning that they are not maternally related, because everyone inherits the same mitochondrial DNA as their mother.

So, we could say that it’s not mother and daughter, but we could also say that it was more than 200 years apart between these two skulls, because we did the carbon-14 dating. So, with that at hand, or that date, we could say that neither of these two skulls is authentic. Of course that’s not what we wish to hear or see, but that was the results.