An international team of scientists has sequenced Ludwig van Beethoven’s genome for the first time using five genetically matched strands of the famous composer’s hair.
Research led by the University of Cambridge in the UK and colleagues reveals important information about the German composer’s health and raises new questions about his recent origins and cause of death.
In total, the team performed authentication tests on eight hair samples obtained from public and private collections in the UK, continental Europe and the US.
A study published in the journal Current Biology shows that DNA from five strands of hair—all from the last seven years of Beethoven’s life—comes from a single individual that matches the composer’s documented ancestry.
By combining genetic data with carefully researched provenance histories, the researchers concluded that the five locks are “almost certainly authentic.” The primary goal of the study was to elucidate Beethoven’s health problems, which include progressive hearing loss beginning in his mid-to-late 20s and eventually leading to him being functionally deaf in 1818.
The team also investigated the possible genetic causes of Beethoven’s chronic gastrointestinal problems and severe liver disease that culminated in his death in 1827.
Beginning during his years in Bonn, Germany, the composer suffered from “wretched” gastrointestinal problems that continued and worsened in Vienna, Austria.
In the summer of 1821, Beethoven had the first of at least two bouts of jaundice, a symptom of liver disease. Cirrhosis was long considered the most likely cause of his death at the age of 56.
Scientists have not been able to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems. However, they discovered a number of significant genetic risk factors for liver disease. They also found evidence of hepatitis B infection in the months before the composer’s final illness.
“From Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’, which he used during the last decade of his life, we can infer that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate how much he consumed,” said lead study author Tristan Begg. from the University of Cambridge.
“While most of his contemporaries claim that his consumption was moderate by early 19th-century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources, and this still probably represented an amount of alcohol that is now known to damage the liver,” Begg said.
If Beethoven’s alcohol consumption was heavy enough for long enough, an interaction with his genetic risk factors is one possible explanation for his cirrhosis, the researchers said.
The team also suggests that Beethoven’s hepatitis B infection may have led to the composer’s severe liver disease, exacerbated by alcohol consumption and genetic risk. Beethoven’s hearing loss has been linked to several potential causes, including diseases with varying degrees of genetic contribution.
Research on verified hair samples did not reveal a simple genetic origin of hearing loss, the researchers said.
“We cannot say for sure what killed Beethoven, but now we can at least confirm the presence of a significant hereditary risk and hepatitis B virus infection,” said Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“We can also rule out several other less likely genetic causes,” Krause said. The team also analyzed the genetics of his living relatives in Belgium, but found no match for any of them.
Some of them share a paternal ancestor with Beethoven in the late 1500s and early 1600s based on genealogical studies, but did not match the Y chromosome found in the authentic hair samples.
The team concluded that this is likely the result of at least one “extra-parous paternity event” – a child resulting from an extramarital relationship – in Beethoven’s direct paternal line.
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