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What can sequencing da Vinci’s genome teach us about genius?

| June 22, 2016

Leonardo da Vinci’s work has inspired scientists in fields as varied as anatomy and architecture for centuries. He may soon have a chance to expand his scope of influence once more—this time in genetics. A group of scientists have formed the Leonardo Project aiming to discover the final resting place of his remains and authenticate them using genetic signatures left in his five-hundred-year-old works of art.

Leonardo died in France at the age of 67. He was buried in a local chapel, but he didn’t stay there as Jesse Ausubel, the vice chairman of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which funds the Leonardo Project wrote in the journal Human Evolution:

In accordance with his wishes, his mortal remains were buried in the Chapel of Saint Florentin in Amboise Castle. But the burial deeds of the artist bear the date 12 August, which indicates an initial temporary burial of the remains of Leonardo, followed, over three months later, by a final burial in the chapel of Saint Florentin. Here he rested until 1802, when the chapel was demolished and some of the tombs were destroyed and their remains were lost. Doubts emerged in 1863  with the excavation of the site where the chapel of Saint Florentin once stood. There between the foundations of the destroyed building, a stone coffin was discovered containing a skeleton with a large skull, judged to be “large enough to hold an exceptional brain” and not far from this coffin a slab with a badly deteriorated inscription, LEO DUS VINC, thought to indicate Leonardus Vincius.

Alas, these remains were also lost, then found again and buried in a second French chapel. The team of scientists think those remains should still be there. They’re currently searching the burial site using radar. Further imaging will be done in the next phase of the project before scientists could remove the remains for genetic testing.

In the last year two other famously misplaced, then re-discovered medieval figures were identified using similar techniques. King Richard III of England was found buried under a parking lot. And Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ remains were identified in an unmarked crypt in Madrid. The Leonardo project hopes for similar success. But they have a far greater challenge because the location of Leonardo’s remains are unknown and his familial lines are less clearly mapped than the British royal lineage.

To skirt the issue, the Leonardo Project will try to find Leonardo’s DNA signature in a unique place: his artwork and notebooks. The painter used his fingers for drawing and painting, so there is a chance that some of his skin cells may still be contained in the artwork. The J. Craig Venter Institute is working to develop DNA extraction techniques that could identify and remove this genetic information without damaging the works of art.

On another front, Leonardo’s father and nearly a dozen other blood relatives are known to be buried in a Florentine chapel. Although the chapel has undergone much renovation in the last five centuries, the team thinks the evidence is strong enough they could exhume a portion of those remains and test them. They will also track down Leonardo’s living relatives. By combining this information, they could compile enough genetic information to validate the identity of Leonardo’s remains if they’re ever found.

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A da Vinci drawing

If the artwork-testing techniques the team plans to develop are approachable enough, they could be widely used to authenticate other works of art, says Rhonda Roby of the Venter institute who is working on the project. Authentication and fraud prevention are problems in the fine art market. Forgery is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Quests to discover the unmarked graves of important historical figures are competing stories for the public. Thousands of people turned out to see Richard III reburied. And the use of genetic technologies means that the projects can be as certain as possible about their results. But the Leonardo Project overstretched in making some claims to garner support for itself.

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In writing about the project, Ausubel said that discovering Leonardo’s genome would offer insight into the nature of artistic and intellectual genius. The analysis would provide information about genes for people with extremely high visual acuity, as Leonardo is said to have had. And the media at large bought into that when covering the Leonardo Project story. From Slate:

Information about da Vinci’s genome would lead to a better understanding of his talents, physical characteristics, and disease risks. “They hope to acquire an extensive enough genetic profile to understand better his abilities and visual acuity,” Jesse Ausubel, vice chairman of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation (a sponsor of the Leonardo Project), wrote in Human Evolution.

The problem is that information doesn’t yet exist. Geneticists have identified a few key genes involved in determining intelligence, but they don’t mean much. As the GLP covered previously, the maximum effect of the three best-studied intelligence genes only accounts for 6 IQ points. That study searched through the genomes of an extremely large number of people. A separate Chinese project is underway to do genome wide association studies of the smartest among us. People included in the Chinese genius study, for example, have an average IQ over 150, making they hyper intelligent among the general population. Perhaps they’ll turn up some good candidate genes. But Leonardo’s genome by itself won’t be able to tell us what makes someone a visual genius, or a great anatomist or a talented painter. There’s a chance Leonardo might not have any of the intelligence gene variations geneticists have already identified. The point is we cannot make sweeping generalizations about any gene from its contribution to one person’s genome or behavior.

Lily Hay Newman suggests on Slate that if we really want to understand genius, perhaps the team should have started by genotyping Einstein. His brain was stolen against his wishes after his death and made available by the offending pathologist to researchers. Although that would be an easier project because we definitely know Einstein’s remains exists, it would be no better at telling us what genes make a genius. It will take thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of genomes for that.

A further outlandish claim has been attached to the Leonardo Project, this time by rather inventive journalists. Darwin Malicdem at Health Aim thinks that the secret goal of the endeavor is a “mad plan” to clone the master painter and scientist. That’s so unlikely I’d call it impossible. The technology needed to do so is still being developed in animal models. In addition to being much more technologically complicated in human cells, there are international ethical guidelines that prohibit it in humans.

The collaborators of the Leonardo Project seek to solve a great historical mystery, and that is enough. The genomic applications they will develop will be useful for many applications, even though it won’t tell us the exact genes it takes to make a creative genius.

“Leonardo himself is a person who loved puzzles,”  Ausubel said in a press call. “He loved cryptology. I think part of the excitement and fun of this project is that it’s the sort of challenge he himself would have invented.”

Meredith Knight is a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science and health writer based in Austin, Texas.

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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