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Scientific A-Team Plans to Reconstruct Leonardo da Vinci’s Genome

Art historians, geneticists and other researchers are working together to compile the great artist’s DNA

(Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Three years from now, the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. If a group of scientists get their way, we’ll also be celebrating his rebirth, of sorts. A group of art historians, genealogists, microbiologists, and DNA specialists from France, Italy, Spain, the U.S. and Canada recently released an ambitious roadmap in the journal Human Evolution on how they hope to sequence much of the master painter’s genome by 2019.

According to a press release, the interdisciplinary team will dust his papers for fingerprints and DNA and analyze dust from his paintings for genetic material (he painted quite a bit with his fingers). Another group will use ground-penetrating radar to locate the grave of his father and other relatives.

“More and more techniques are being developed to recover DNA from people touching things,” Rhonda Roby, a geneticist at the Craig Venter Institute tells Maddie Stone at Gizmodo, pointing out that da Vinci’s notebooks could contain traces of his genetic material. “I also think there’s a possibility of biological material inside paintings. The challenge would be actually getting that material out without damaging the artwork.”

The researchers are also interested in testing the purported remains of da Vinci in the chapel of Saint-Hubert in the Loire Valley of France, according to Sarah Knapton at the Telegraph. When he died in 1519, da Vinci’s remains were originally interred at the nearby Chapel of Saint-Florentin at the Chateau d’Amboise, but his body had to be moved because that building was destroyed. Historians have never been sure if the remains in da Vinci’s grave are actually those of the great painter. But the Leonardo Project plans to ask for permission to open the grave and test the material. They hope to use his father’s DNA and genes from a group of relatives recently identified in villages around Florence to confirm his identity.

“If human DNA is obtained from Leonardo’s work and sequenced, the genetic material can then be compared with genetic information from skeletal or other remains that may be exhumed,” Jesse Ausubel, vice-chairman of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which is funding the project, tells Knapton. “We stand to gain not only greater historical knowledge of Leonardo but possibly a reconstruction of his genetic profile, which could provide insights into other individuals with remarkable qualities.”

According to the press release, the team hopes to use the information they collect to figure out da Vinci’s physical appearance, perhaps reconstruct his face, and learn other information like his ancestry, diet, state of health, habits and the places he lived. 

As a pioneer in the study of body and trace fossils, it seems likely the master himself—though famously secretive—would be excited by this ambitious attempt to authenticate his identity.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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