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DNA technique reconstructs hair, eye color of dead Polish general, say researchers

Researchers from the Institute of Forensic Research and Jagielonian University have used a new method of determining hair and eye color from modern forensic samples that can also be used to identify details from ancient human remains. Researchers used the HIrisPlex DNA analysis system to reconstruct the hair and eye color of Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who lived from 1881 to 1943. They discovered that General Sikorski had blue eyes and blond hair.

“DNA analysis of ancient skeletal remains is invaluable in evolutionary biology for exploring the history of species, including humans. Contemporary human bones and teeth, however, are relevant in forensic DNA analyses that deal with the identification of perpetrators, missing persons, disaster victims or family relationships. They may also provide useful information towards unravelling controversies that surround famous historical individuals,” wrote the authors in the open-access journal Investigative Genetics.

Researchers from Poland and the Netherlands, who recently created the HIrisPlex system for forensic analysis, have now proven that this system is able to successfully work on older samples from human remains such as 800-year-old teeth and bones. BioMed Central notes that the HIrisPlex system examines 24 DNA polymorphisms, which can be used to predict eye and hair color.

“This system can be used to solve historical controversies where colour photographs or other records are missing,” said study leader Dr. Wojciech Branicki, from the Institute of Forensic Research and Jagielonian University, Kraków. “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. Some of our samples were from unknown inmates of a World War II prison. In these cases HIrisPlex helped to put physical features to the other DNA evidence.”

According to the AFP, General Sikorski led Poland’s government-in-exile in Britain during World War II before losing his life in a plane crash in 1943. The general’s body was unearthed from a cemetery in Newark, England, in 1993 for reburial in Kraków. His body was unearthed again in 2008 to determine whether there was any evidence to support a theory that the general had been poisoned, shot or strangled. Using the HIrisPlex system, researchers said there is a 99 percent chance that the general had blue eyes, and an 85 percent chance that he had blond hair.

For ancient samples, where DNA is even more degraded, the HIrisPlex system was still able to determine eye and hair color (for the most degraded DNA samples, the HIrisPlex system was able to  predict eye color alone.) The system, for example, determined that one woman buried in the crypt of the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec near Kraków, sometime during the 12th-14th centuries, had brown hair and brown eyes.

“Overall, we demonstrate that the HIrisPlex system is suitable, sufficiently sensitive and robust to successfully predict eye and hair colour from ancient and contemporary skeletal remains. Our findings, therefore, highlight the HIrisPlex system as a promising tool in future routine forensic casework involving skeletal remains, including ancient DNA studies, for the prediction of eye and hair colour of deceased individuals,” wrote the authors in Investigative Genetics.

The study’s findings were recently published in BioMed Central’s open access journal Investigative Genetics.