‘Revealed: the Indian ancestry of (Prince) William’ claims today’s Times headline. The story, covered over 3 pages, revolves around Eliza Kewark, the future King’s great great great great great grandmother. Kewark (or Kevork) has been described in the past as Armenian, although she was known to reside in India. Here she lived conjugally with a colonial merchant called Theodore Forbes, and produced a daughter Katherine who was eventually raised in Scotland. If we follow Katherine’s maternal line of descent from mother to daughter we reach Diana Spencer.
The science behind the headlines involves mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are microscopic structures present in every cell in our bodies, whose principal function is providing energy in the form of ATP. Interestingly, mitochondria have their own genetic heritage. Mitochondria are believed to descend from symbiotic bacteria whose energy providing benefits led to them being taken up by primitive cells 1.5 billion years ago. Traces of the bacterial DNA remain within mitochondria, and genetic differences (mutations) in this DNA allow us track the ancestry of human populations. Mitochondria are always inherited from the mother, since they are present in large numbers in the egg at the time of fertilisation. Thus by investigating mitochondrial DNA we can trace maternal ancestry. It is simple to provide a cheek swab sample suitable for DNA analysis, in fact this is the method commonly used by the police as well as genetics researchers.
Research laboratories use mitochondrial DNA for investigation of the genetics of populations, and these findings often provide evidence for past events that lack tangible written support. People researching their family history are also enthusiastic about the use of genetics, whether it is to formally demonstrate the common ancestry of two relatives, or to pursue links with ancient cultures.
Getting back to Prince William, it seems that he has not personally provided a DNA sample, but instead we are able to infer his mitochondrial DNA result with reasonable certainty from the results of two of his maternal relatives. Through a process of triangulation, these samples can be used to determine the type of mitochondrial DNA carried by Eliza Kewark. The results of these tests appear unequivocal: the two people tested both carry a rare type of mitochondrial DNA called R30b, which has previously only been found in India and Nepal. The Times story states that other genetic markers found in the genomes of the DNA donors also provide evidence for south Asian ancestry. Thus it seems that Eliza Kewark was likely to have Indian maternal ancestry, even if her paternal lineage was Armenian.
It is not surprising that members of the royal family are of foreign descent: after all, William’s other ancestors include dozens of European royals. It is however interesting that the future king can claim Indian ancestry – a reminder perhaps of the interconnections that have long brought the world together. The news therefore shows the potential for historical genetics to enrich our understanding of history, as indeed the Times editorial emphasises, talking about Anglo-Indian relations and the power of genetic research to assist historical investigations.
But there are other reasons why this research is hitting the headlines. Dr Jim Wilson of Edinburgh University is the scientist who conducted the genetic tests. Interestingly, Dr Wilson is scientific director of BritainsDNA, a company providing commercial genetic ancestry testing. The Times is providing excellent publicity for BritainsDNA, including a “Readers offer” on page 4 of the paper. There are a number of companies providing similar genetic ancestry tests, but BritainsDNA seems to have the most efficient media team, making headlines with a number of studies earlier in the year, even if according to geneticists at UCL not all of these stories should be taken at face value.
Dr Andy Grierson is Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at SiTraN in Sheffield, with an interest in the developing field of historical genetics.