In a finding almost 200 years in the making, researchers have analyzed Beethoven’s DNA using samples of hair to better understand the ailments that famously plagued the composer.
The researchers’ analysis shows that neither his hearing loss nor his frequent stomach issues were caused by Beethoven’s genes. The liver disease which eventually led to Beethoven’s death was likely caused by his lingering Hepatitis B infection.
Plus: Researchers discovered that Beethoven’s father had an affair that resulted in the birth of a child. This surprising discovery was made through genetic analysis. This could have even been Beethoven’s father. Beethoven may now be an unborn child.
The work was inspired by a wish Beethoven made in an 1802 document, where he requested that doctors investigate the cause of his hearing loss and that the findings be made public. Today’s study appears in Current biology HTML1.
Probably the most well known of Beethoven’s health problems is his hearing loss–which led Beethoven to shutter himself away and contemplate suicide. The artist also suffered from severe pain in his stomach and ribs, and weakness due to issues with his digestion system. He was also affected by jaundice and his scarred and failing liver.
Medical biographers have already compiled a picture Beethoven’s health largely from the letters and diaries that he kept. They also used written accounts which were provided by his doctor and his autopsy report. Some have also performed chemical analysis on the composer’s hairs and bits of his skull. These samples were not authenticated.
“Beethoven really is kind of unique because of the enormous literature on his health problems. So it was really a unique chance to use molecular genetic methods to add something to this,” said study coauthor and geneticist from the University of Bonn, Markus Nothen, in a press briefing.
This latest study involved the analysis of DNA taken from eight Beethoven hair locks, which totaled almost three meters long. They verified the authenticity of five of these fragments both by tracking who looked after the hairs over time, the provenance histories, and looking closely at features of the DNA itself, like that the damage matches up to the expected age of the samples.
Researchers couldn’t link Beethoven’s hearing or gut problems with his genes. However, they didn’t totally rule out a genetic cause.
“Unlike in ancient bones, DNA in ancient hair is highly degraded, so we have very short fragments of DNA,” said coauthor Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in a press briefing. This means that Krause, Nothen and their team were unable to sequence Beethoven’s whole genome. They also couldn’t find any particular genetic mutations. Krause stated that it is difficult to extract enough DNA from hairs to build a complete genome.
That means other theories surrounding Beethoven’s notable hearing loss still linger. Otosclerosis is where the middle ear develops a spongey boney nub that prevents the bones from properly vibrating. Another is Paget’s disease, where the ear bones become more fragile.
These diseases (and a host of other possibilities) might have a genetic aspect to them. Tristan Begg (a Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History PhD student in biological Anthropology) was the study’s coauthor. He said that they could not test the theory. “We didn’t have sufficient reference data to actually assess Beethoven’s risk for otosclerosis but it has to be stressed that the diagnostic accuracy for assessing otosclerosis would not be great, it would just be a start.”
The team did, however, find that Beethoven’s genes predisposed him to liver disease. They also detected fragments of DNA from the hepatitis B virus that had become lodged in the hair strands. It indicates that hepatitis A was present in his hair at the time of his death. It could have been earlier,” said Krause.
Putting all the information together, the researchers think that Beethoven’s liver disease was caused by a mix of his genes, his well-documented and long-running alcoholism, and the hepatitis B virus–a virus that’s spread through sex but also through sharing needles or during pregnancy (there’s no evidence to say how Beethoven became infected).
Davide Brotto, a medical doctor specializing in audiology and who wasn’t involved in the study, told Motherboard that this study confirms what he and his colleagues suspected in a previous study–that the liver was involved in many of Beethoven’s underlying health problems. According to my understanding, Beethoven had fragile genes and an unstable liver. This was made worse by his drinking habits. This explains his gastrointestinal symptoms and the hearing loss as well, and also the composer’s behavioral issues.”
There are of course limits to what researchers can glean about Beethoven’s health issues. “A great problem in medicine is the subjective perception of the symptom, which makes it difficult to be understood by a physician,” said Brotto. Like others writing on Beethoven’s illnesses, Brotto and his team relied on historical records and letters between Beethoven and his doctor, however Brotto notes that “some of these reports may be biased by his psychological status, by his frustration of not getting a good diagnosis and also the limitations of the medical knowledge in the time he lived in.”
Then there are the things that don’t show up in letters, such as the euphemistically dubbed “extra-pair paternity event” this latest study uncovered. The finding came about when researchers analyzed Y chromosomes from five living descendents of the Beethoven lineage. These genetics could be traced back to an ancestor who lived in the 16th century. However, when the team compared Beethoven’s Y chromosome to those of his living descendents, they didn’t match. That told researchers that some time in the seven generations between that 16th century ancestor and Beethoven’s birth, someone had an affair resulting in a child. You wouldn’t expect this to happen. Begg stated that these events would likely be secretive in nature.
It may have been Beethoven’s father, although Begg and his colleagues aren’t weighing in one way or the other. “If you are completely agnostic to the historical record and you know there has been an extra pair paternity event at some point in the seven generations above Beethoven, you cannot rule out that Beethoven himself may have been illegitimate,” said Begg. “I’m not advocating for that, I’m simply saying it’s a possibility.”
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