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34389DNA Article

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  • Cindy Neal
    May 4, 2007
      DNA unmasks Czech past
      Prague Castle bones could reveal medieval dynasty descendants

      By Hilda Hoy
      Staff Writer, The Prague Post
      April 25th, 2007

      Jan Prerovský/THE PRAGUE POST
      Forensics expert Daniel Vanek believes that Premyslid dynasty remains will
      fill in a picture long blank.
      A research project at Prague Castle is mapping the DNA of centuries-old
      Bohemian rulers with the aim of bringing Czech history "closer to the
      people," the project's lead researcher says.
      In various locations around the castle - such as St. Vitus Cathedral, the
      Basilica of St. George and the destroyed Church of Our Lady - are buried the
      ancient remains of the Czech Premyslid dynasty, some of them more than a
      millennium old.
      Using DNA, researchers hope to find descendants of the dynasty.
      Starting last summer, a team of archaeologists, historians and forensic
      scientists began working on the Archeosteon, or ancient bone, project,
      extracting DNA from these bones and creating a "genetic genealogy,"
      forensics expert Dr. Daniel Vanek says.
      "There are a lot of unknowns about these people," he says. "Anthropologists
      can estimate age and sex, that's all. But with DNA you can have a complete
      Vanek presented the results of the project's first stage at a Prague
      conference of the Czechoslovak Society for Forensic Genetics April 16-17.
      While there are still years of work ahead, the research has already borne
      fruit, he says.
      "The results were great," he says. Though at one time DNA could only be
      extracted from substances like blood or saliva, his team has had success
      with these ancient Premyslid skeletons. "We've developed a very robust
      method of extracting DNA from bone samples."
      Ancient rulers
      Credited as the founders of Czech statehood, the Premyslid dynasty ruled
      over Bohemia, and at times parts of modern-day Poland, from the ninth
      century until 1306.
      According to legend, the dynasty is descended from the mythical princess
      Libuše, who foretold the founding of Prague during a vision. Libuše married
      Premysl, and their future descendants were named the Premyslids.
      "The people buried at Prague Castle are very important for Czech history
      [but] we know only a little about them," says Dr. Milena Bravermanová, an
      archaeologist at the castle who helped excavate the burial sites. "We have
      graves, we have skeletons, but we don't know who these people were."
      "For us, it's very important to know as much as possible about . our past.
      We hope the DNA research will help us do that," she says.
      Bravermanová has spent years painstakingly excavating the castle's graves.
      Using brushes and special tools to carefully sweep away centuries of dirt,
      she and her team unearthed the bones, sometimes discovering things such as
      knives, jewelry or fragments of clothing along with the remains.
      >From there, Vanek and his researchers took samples of the bones and
      laboriously extracted DNA samples. First, a piece of the bone is carefully
      cut using power tools, he says. The bone is soaked to remove the many
      "inhibitor enzymes" that impede DNA extraction. The bones are ground to a
      fine powder, and DNA is then amplified using a technique called polymerase
      chain reaction, or PCR.
      It's the same process Vanek used on bones from mass graves around Kosovo,
      where he aided in the prosecution of war crimes. It's also the technique he
      uses to help Czech police crack unsolved homicides. U.S. authorities, too,
      use the process to identify remains of soldiers killed in Korea and Vietnam.
      With bones younger than 10 years, DNA can be extracted in under a week, he
      says. With ancient material such as that found at Prague Castle, "it takes
      months, if you're lucky."
      His team has come out lucky. Using the DNA Vanek has extracted from the
      Prague Castle bones, Archeosteon researchers hope to firm up their
      understanding of the Premyslid history and family tree. It may even be
      possible to eventually imagine these nobles' appearances, including hair and
      eye color, Vanek says.
      "The science is running quickly. We have new techniques nearly every month,"
      he says. "But we don't want to push it. The main goal is identification
      [and] to answer historical questions. And when we release our methods, we
      can help other archaeo-geneticists all over the world."
      A genetic map
      Another question that could be answered by the project is whether the
      Premyslids really died out.
      Though the royal line is said to have ended in 1306 with the murder of King
      Wenceslas III, historians have reason to believe Premyslid descendants are
      still walking the Czech lands today.
      "We know that, from the 11th century, the dynasty spread very much,"
      Bravermanová says. "Because of this, it's possible that some descendants are
      still alive. But we have a lot of years for which we know nothing. It's
      possible that the DNA can help us."
      By testing "as many Czech males as possible" and creating a database of
      their Y-chromosome material, Vanek says, researchers may eventually be able
      to trace today's Czech population all the way back to Premyslids, and
      "The information stored on the male Y chromosome is transferred down through
      the generations. You can even trace our roots down to Africa, to Adam," he
      "It's the mission of every scientist to find the answers to questions, and
      there are still a lot of unknowns about the Premyslid dynasty."
      Nada Cerná contributed to this report.

      Hilda Hoy can be reached at hhoy@...


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