Scientists sequence Beethoven’s genome using locks of his hair

Scientists have analysed five locks of what is believed to be Beethoven’s hair to sequence the genome of the prodigious composer.

Their findings indicate it is likely that a genetic predisposition to liver disease and a hepatitis B infection, combined with his broadly accepted alcohol consumption, contributed to his death.

German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn and died in Vienna in 1827 aged 56.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven (Georgios Kollidas/Alamy/PA)

He suffered progressive hearing loss, which began in his mid to late 20s and led to him being functionally deaf by 1818.

An international team of researchers led by Cambridge University analysed strands of hair from eight locks of hair in public and private collections in a bid to shed light on Beethoven’s health problems.

Five locks were deemed “authentic” by the researchers and came from a single European male.

The Stumpff Lock, attributed to Beethoven, in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany. (Anthi Tiliakou/ PA)
The Stumpff lock, attributed to Beethoven, in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany (Anthi Tiliakou/PA)

The team of scientists were unable to find a definitive cause for Beethoven’s deafness or gastrointestinal problems.

But they did discover a number of genetic risk factors for liver disease and evidence of a hepatitis B infection in the months before the composer’s final illness.

Lead author Tristan Begg of Cambridge University said: “We can surmise from Beethoven’s ‘conversation books’, which he used during the last decade of his life, that his alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes being consumed.

“While most of his contemporaries claim his consumption was moderate by early 19th century Viennese standards, there is not complete agreement among these sources and this still likely amounted to quantities of alcohol known today to be harmful to the liver.

“If his alcohol consumption was sufficiently heavy over a long enough period of time, the interaction with his genetic risk factors presents one possible explanation for his cirrhosis.”

The researchers say it is unlikely, based on the genomic data, coeliac disease or lactose intolerance were behind Beethoven’s gastrointestinal complaints.

The Halm-Thayer Lock and the Bermann Lock, both authenticated by the study. (Kevin Brown/ PA)
The Halm-Thayer lock and Bermann lock, both authenticated by the study (Kevin Brown/PA)

Johannes Krause from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany said: “We cannot say definitely what killed Beethoven, but we can now at least confirm the presence of significant heritable risk and an infection with hepatitis B virus.

“We can also eliminate several other less plausible genetic causes.”

Mr Begg added: “Taken in view of the known medical history, it is highly likely that it was some combination of these three factors, including his alcohol consumption, acting in concert, but future research will have to clarify the extent to which each factor was involved.”

Investigation of the hair samples did not reveal a simple genetic origin of Beethoven‘s hearing loss.

Dr Axel Schmidt, of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Hospital of Bonn in Germany, said: “Although a clear genetic underpinning for Beethoven’s hearing loss could not be identified, the scientists caution that such a scenario cannot be strictly ruled out.”

The researchers also identified what they describe as an “extra-pair paternity event” – a child resulting from an affair – in Beethoven’s direct paternal line.

The Stumpff Lock, from which Beethoven’s whole genome was sequenced, with inscription by former owner Patrick Stirling (Kevin Brown/ PA)
The Stumpff lock, from which Beethoven’s whole genome was sequenced, with an inscription by former owner Patrick Stirling (Kevin Brown/PA)

The study suggests this event happened in the direct paternal line between the conception of Hendrik van Beethoven in Kampenhout, Belgium, in around 1572, and the conception of Ludwig van Beethoven seven generations later.

Genetic genealogist Maarten Larmuseau from the KU Leuven university in Belgium said: “Through the combination of DNA data and archival documents, we were able to observe a discrepancy between Ludwig van Beethoven’s legal and biological genealogy.”

Mr Begg said: “We hope that by making Beethoven’s genome publicly available for researchers, and perhaps adding further authenticated locks to the initial chronological series, remaining questions about his health and genealogy can someday be answered.”

The research is published in the journal Current Biology.