August 21, 2009

The DNA of Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus (19 February 1473 – 24 May 1543) was the first astronomer to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology, which displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. His epochal book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), published in 1543 just before his death, is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the scientific revolution.

Copernicus was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, quadrilingual polyglot, classical scholar, translator, artist, Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist. Among his many responsibilities, astronomy figured as little more than an avocation — yet it was in that field that he made his mark upon the world.

Recently, Bogdanowicz W et al described the findings of the DNA analysis of the human remains of Copernicus: Bogdanowicz W, Allen M, Branicki W, Lembring M, Gajewska M, Kupiec T. Genetic identification of putative remains of the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jul 28; 106(30):12279-82.

An identical HVI and HVII mtDNA profile [with the polymorphisms:16129A; 16316G; 263G; 315.1C. In addition to the hypervariable region analysis, 16 haplogroup informative SNP positions were examined (709G, 1719G, 1811A, 3010G, 6365T, 6776T, 7028C, 8251G, 8697G, 9055G, 11251A, 12372G, 13708G, 14766C, 14798T, and 15904C). Analysis of these haplogroup informative mtDNA polymorphisms indicates that the examined individual belongs to haplogroup H, which is the most frequent of the 6 European-specific haplogroups.

Copernicus’ maternal lineage may have originated from Silesia, and can thus be of German descent. Copernicus’ grandmother, Catherina, was first married to Heinrich Peckau, who was a member of the council of Thorun. After Heinrich’s death, Catherina was married to a trader and famous enemy of the Teutonic Knights—Lucas Watzenrode. Together they had 3 children, Christina, Lucas, and Nicolaus Copernicus’ mother, Barbara.

Autosomal STR genotyping results were D8S1179 11/14; D3S1358 16/ 18; TH01 9.3/9.3; D19S433 13/13; VWA 14/15; D5S818 12/12. Y-Chromosome genotyping: DYS456– 16; DYS389I– 13; DYS390– 23;DYS389II– 29; DYS458– 19; DYS19– 14; DYS385– 11, 13; DYS393– 13; DYS391– 11; DYS439– 12; DYS635– 23; DYS392– 13; Y GATA H4– 12; DYS437– 15; DYS438– 12; DYS448– 19. This haplotype has been found in individuals from many countries, including Austria, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. It is interesting to note that Copernicus’ paternal ancestors may also have originated from Silesia. Copernicus’ father, also named Nicolaus, was a known trader in Cracow. He moved to Thorun in 1458 where he married Barbara Watzenrode. Nicolaus Copernicus was their youngest son. The Y-chromosome data that we obtained will be useful if reference samples from some of Copernicus’ relatives along the paternal lineage are ever collected.

The SNP position rs12913832, located in an evolutionarily conserved region within intron 86 of the HERC2 gene, revealed a homozygous C/C genotype which is the predominant genotype among blue or gray-eyed humans (~80%). The result indicates that Copernicus might have had light iris color, a finding that is rather unexpected given that he is usually shown in portraits with dark eyes.

The authors concluded that:
“Taking all data into consideration, i.e., the identical genetical profiles in the skeletal remains and reference hairs along with the other anthropological and archeological information, they concluded that the skeletal remains derived from the St. Cross Altar tomb at Frombork Cathedral are those of the great Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus”.