Scientists Determine Eye, Hair Color Of Ancestors With New Technique
January 14, 2013

Scientists Determine Eye, Hair Color Of Ancestors With New Technique

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

As DNA analysis technology improves, scientists are able to bring more and more of Earth´s history back to life in greater detail.

In a new report in the journal Investigative Genetics, researchers have revealed the ability to flesh out the features of long-dead individuals based on a newly developed analytic technique.

By examining variations in the DNA code on teeth and bone artifacts, the geneticists´ new HIrisPlex DNA analysis system was able to recreate hair and eye color from evidence up to 800 years old. The system was initially tested on remains from Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski and it confirmed his blue eyes and blond hair that were never captured in a color photograph.

"This system can be used to solve historical controversies where color photographs or other records are missing,” said Wojciech Branicki, from the Institute of Forensic Research and Jagielonian University in Kraków, Poland. “HIrisPlex was able to confirm that General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who died in a plane crash in 1943, had the blue eyes and blond hair present in portraits painted years after his death.”

The researchers were able to determine Sikorski´s features based on the analysis of a tooth taken from his remains. The general led Poland's government-in-exile in the U.K. during World War II before dying in the plane crash. In 1993, his body was disinterred from a cemetery in England for a ceremonial reburial in Krakow. He was exhumed once more in 2008 to test popular theories that he had either been poisoned, shot or strangled.

The HIrisPlex system analysis gave a 99-percent probability that Sikorski had blue eyes, and an 85-percent chance that he had blond hair. Incidentally, the non-related forensic analysis ruled out poisoning, gunshot, and strangulation as the cause of death; however, the possibility of a mid-air sabotage could not be ruled out.

In the study, the forensic geneticists applied the system to several other historical artifacts besides the one taken from Sikorski.

“Some of our samples were from unknown inmates of a World War II prison,” said Branicki. “In these cases HIrisPlex helped to put physical features to the other DNA evidence."

The inmates´ remains were from 12 people who had been killed in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1942. Skulls associated with these remains were sent to wartime Vienna, where they were displayed as “sub-human.”

According to the analysis of DNA recovered from the skulls, the individuals most likely had blue or brown eyes, and hair that ranged from light brown to blond, leading the scientists to conclude that the inmates had a Polish-European ancestry.

The new analytical system was also used to identify the remains of Benedictine monks and a mysterious woman from the Middle Ages. Those remains were found alongside the Nazi prison inmate bones near an abbey in Tyniec, Poland.

Despite the fact that the medieval samples were more degraded than previous samples, this system was still able to predict eye and hair color and it identified the mysterious woman buried in the crypt as having dark blond or brownish hair and brown eyes.