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DNA from Beethoven’s hair gives insight into fatal liver disease


Using five strands of hair, scientists found that the famous music composer was genetically predisposed to liver disease and had a hepatitis B virus infection.

Using five locks of hair, scientists sequenced the genome of one of history’s greatest musical composers – Ludwig van Beethoven – nearly two centuries after his death, gaining insight into his deadly liver disease but not his hearing loss.

Researchers said his genome showed the German composer was genetically predisposed to liver disease and had a hepatitis B virus infection.

An autopsy after his death in 1827 at the age of 56 in Vienna found that he had cirrhosis of the liver, a disease often caused by chronic drinking. The new findings suggest multiple factors were behind his liver disease, including genetics, viral infection and alcohol consumption.

“The risk of Beethoven’s liver disease, which stems mainly from mutations in two genes – PNPLA3 and HFE – would have roughly tripled its risk for the full spectrum of progressive liver disease,” said University of Cambridge biological anthropologist Tristan Begg, lead author of the study. the study published in the journal Current Biology, on Wednesday.

“By themselves, these risk factors are not of great concern to most people who have them, but there would have been a detrimental interaction effect with his alcohol consumption,” Begg added. “Prior to this study, alcohol was the only known known risk factor for Beethoven’s liver disease.”

hearing loss

The presence of the hepatitis B virus, incorporated into Beethoven’s genome, indicated a liver infection at least a few months before his death and perhaps earlier.

Beethoven experienced progressive hearing loss from the age of 29 and by the age of 44 it was complete, although he continued to compose masterpieces.

“We were ultimately unable to find a genetic explanation for Beethoven’s hearing loss, although this by no means rules out such an explanation, as several possible explanations could not be reliably or fully evaluated,” Begg said.

No evidence had been found for conditions assumed by some experts, such as otosclerosis or Paget’s disease, Begg said.

This photo, provided by researchers, shows composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s Stumpff Lock in a lab at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany (Anthi Tiliakou/AP Photo)

A towering figure in the history of Western civilization, Beethoven was a brilliant and innovative composer of symphonies, sonatas, concertos and other pieces, along with a few operas. Many of his works have become immortal, including his Symphonies No. 5, No. 6 and No. 9, Moonlight Sonata and Für Elise.

In 1802, Beethoven, in a document called the Heiligenstadt Testament, asked that after his death his physician publicly describe his loss of hearing and other health problems, so that “as far as possible the world may at least be reconciled to me”.

“Beethoven’s music continues to inspire millions of people almost 200 years after his death,” said Begg.

“It was valuable to conduct this study first in order to try to satisfy Beethoven’s own wishes regarding the understanding of his health, but also to convey more accurately the facts of his biography, which was also of interest to him. he added. .

The researchers analyzed eight locks of hair from public and private collections in the United States and Europe, and determined that five matched and were almost certainly authentic as his own.

The best preserved, the Stumpff Lock, based on the name of a man who once owned it, was used to sequence its genome.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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