Copernicus Remains Verified by DNA Analysis
The skull of Copernicus.
Credit: Marie Allen

A new DNA analysis of hairs found in a book that once belonged to Copernicus shows a match with the great astronomer?s putative remains, seemingly confirming their identity.

Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish mathematician, astronomer and Catholic cleric (among many other pursuits), developed a heliocentric model of the solar system, opposing the widespread belief that the Earth was the center of the universe.

The remains thought to belong to Copernicus (1473-1543) were found beneath a cathedral in Frombork, Poland, in 2005.

The bones were found close to the altar Copernicus was responsible for during his tenure as priest, and forensic facial reconstructions using the skull look similar to portraits of the man.

A team of Swedish and Polish researchers sought to more firmly ID the remains by comparing the DNA of the remains to that in hairs found in a calendar (now exhibited at the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala, Sweden) that belonged to Copernicus for much of his life.

"The analysis of several hairs resulted in interpretable profiles for four of the hairs. Of these, two of the hairs have the same profile as the putative remains of Copernicus," said team member Marie Allen of Uppsala University.

The Uppsala researchers also made tests of a tooth as well as bone tissue from the remains. Results of the analysis from the Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow and the Museum and Institute of Zoology in Warsaw and the Uppsala laboratory were identical.

"Although these results points towards the materials being from the same individual, there is a probability of random match," Allen said.

The DNA material in this case was limited and also degraded. Therefore, a so-called mitochondrial DNA test was performed, but this test is less reliable. (Most DNA is found in the nucleus of a cell, but mitochondria, the energy producers of the cell, also carry DNA that is passed down from the mother.) This test is commonly used in criminal investigations, but only as circumstantial evidence to strengthen the case.

"The DNA results should be looked at and evaluated in the light of and together with the information from other disciplines as the archaeological, anthropological and facial reconstruction data," Allen said.

The results of the DNA analysis, first announced in November 2008, are detailed in the July 6 online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.