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What made Beethoven sick? DNA from his hair offers clues


Nearly 200 years after Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, researchers extracted DNA from strands of his hair in search of clues to his health problems and hearing loss.

They could not solve the case of the German composer’s deafness or severe stomach ailments. But they found a genetic risk for liver disease, as well as a liver-damaging hepatitis B infection in the last months of his life.

These factors, along with his chronic alcohol use, were likely enough to cause the liver failure that is believed to have killed him at the age of 56, according to A study published Wednesday in the journal Current Biology.

This Sunday marks the 196th anniversary of Beethoven’s death in Vienna on March 26, 1827. The composer wrote that he wanted doctors to study his health problems after his death.

“With Beethoven in particular, illnesses sometimes greatly limited his creative work,” said the study’s author. axel schmidt, geneticist at the University Hospital Bonn in Germany. “And for doctors, it’s always been a mystery what was really behind it.”

Since his death, scientists have long tried to piece together Beethoven’s medical history, offering a variety of possible explanations for his many illnesses.

Now, with advances in ancient DNA technology, researchers have been able to extract genetic clues from locks of Beethoven’s hair that had been cut off and preserved as keepsakes. According to the study, they focused on five locks that are “almost certainly authentic” and come from the same European man.

They also looked at three other historic locks, but were unable to confirm that they were actually Beethoven’s. Previous tests on one of those locks suggested that Beethoven had lead poisoning, but researchers concluded that the sample was actually from a woman.

After cleaning a lock of Beethoven’s hair, the scientists dissolved the locks in a solution and extracted bits of DNA, said study author Tristan James Alexander Begg, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge.

Pulling out the genes was challenging, as the DNA in hair is cut into tiny fragments, the author explained. johannes krauspaleogenetics from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

But eventually, after using nearly 10 feet of Beethoven’s hair, they were able to put together a genome that they could “interrogate” for signs of genetic disease, Krause said.

Although the researchers found no clear genetic signs of the cause of Beethoven’s gastrointestinal problems, they found celiac disease and lactose intolerance unlikely causes. In the future, the genome may offer more clues as we learn more about how genes influence health, Begg said.

The research also led to a startling discovery: When they analyzed the DNA of living members of the extended Beethoven family, the scientists found a discrepancy in the Y chromosomes that are passed down from the father. The Y chromosomes of the five men matched each other, but they did not match those of the composer.

This suggests that there was an “additional pair paternity event” somewhere in the generations before Beethoven was born, Begg said. In other words, a child born from an extramarital relationship is part of the composer’s family tree.

The key question of what caused Beethoven’s hearing loss remains unanswered, he said Dr. Abraham Z. Cooper from Ohio State University, who was not involved in the study. And it can be hard to understand because genetics can show us only half of the “nature and nurture” equation that makes up our health.

But he added that the mystery is part of what makes Beethoven so captivating: “I think the fact that we can’t know is fine,” Cooper said.

AP writer Daniel Niemann contributed to this report from Bonn, Germany.

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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