DNA from hair helps researchers determine Ludwig van Beethoven’s illnesses

The DNA from Ludwig Van Beethoven’s hair is now being used to help researchers determine what made the famous composer ill.

Nearly 200 years after his death, researchers say they pulled DNA strands from his hair to search for clues that would provide information about his known hearing loss and other health issues.

Although they weren’t able to find out why he became deaf or why he had stomach issues, they did find a genetic risk for liver disease. Researchers also say they a found liver-damaging hepatitis B infection in his body during his last days alive.

According to Khaosod English, a study published in the journal Current Biology says along with his chronic drinking, the health factors recently found would have been enough to contribute to his death.

This Sunday will mark the 196th anniversary of Beethoven’s death. He died on March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria at the age of 56. Beethoven had made it known that he wanted doctors to study his health problems after he passed away.

Axel Schmidt, a geneticist at University Hospital Bonn in Germany says such health issues limited Beethoven’s creativity.

“With Beethoven in particular, it is the case that illnesses sometimes very much limited his creative work. And for physicians, it has always been a mystery what was really behind it.”

Scientists cleaned five strands of Beethoven’s hair, one strand at a time. They then dissolved the pieces into a solution and fished out chunks of DNA. Eventually, after using up almost 10 feet of his hair, they were able to piece together a genome that they could “quiz” for signs of genetic disease.

In addition to finding out health information, scientists made a startling discovery. When they tested DNA from living members of Beethoven’s extended family, they found a discrepancy. That discrepancy in the Y chromosomes that are passed down on the father’s side pointed towards an “extra-pair paternity event.”

In other words, since the Y chromosomes from the five men matched each other, but not Beethoven’s, the findings signalled that a child was born from an extramarital relationship in the composer’s family tree.

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Ann Carter

Ann Carter is an award-winning journalist from the United States with over 12 years experience in print and broadcast news. Her work has been featured in America, China and Thailand as she has worked internationally at major news stations as a writer and producer. Carter graduated from the Walter Williams Missouri School of Journalism in the USA.