Scientific Breakthrough Recreates DNA from Living Descendants

A recent scientific breakthrough saw the recreation of the DNA of a man who died nearly 200 years ago from his living descendants, rather than his physical remains – the first time this has ever happened.

As reported by Futurism, deCODE Genetics, a biopharmaceutical in Iceland, took DNA samples from 182 descendants of Hans Jonatan, a historical figure who is something of a legend in Iceland. Jonatan, who lived between 1784 and 1827, was born a slave on the island of St Croix in the Caribbean. He was bought by the Danish West India Company, and owned by Henrich Ludvig Ernst von Schimmelmann and his wife, Henriette Catharina.

Schimmelmann and his family returned to Copenhagen when his plantation business started to fail. When he died, he left his salve to his widow. Jonatan escaped and joined the Danish Navy, later fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. When the police took him, his lawyer argued that although slavery was still legal in the Danish West Indies, it wasn’t in Denmark and he couldn’t be kept as a slave.

The court, however, sentenced him to be returned to the West Indies. Jonatan escaped to Iceland where he worked at a trading station, taking over the running of the place in 1820. He married a local woman, and the couple had two children who survived childhood. Their living descendants now total nearly 900.

Jonatan was the first Icelandic inhabitant with an African heritage, which made it easier to recreate his DNA after his death. Iceland also has an extensive and very detailed collection of genealogical records.

deCODE used DNA taken from 182 relatives, reconstructing 38 percent of Jonatan’s mother’s DNA (which made up 19 percent of Jonatan’s).

Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick in England said the research was the sort of analysis you could only do with an immigrant genome of a very rare type but deCODE believes the technique could have extensive applications in the future.

This might include creating virtual ancient DNA to allow scientists to recreate historical figures. Agnar Helgason of deCODE said any historical figure born after 1500 with known descendants could be reconstructed.

Reporting on the story, Futurism said: “The quantity, scale, and detail of the DNA from living ancestors required to recreate a person’s DNA make it impractical for use within most families. Additionally, with each new generation, identifiable DNA fragments get smaller and more difficult to work with.

“But if it’s honed, it could become a valuable historical tool, giving us an in-depth look at what life was like for historical figures like Jonatan. Scientists could genetically resurrect anyone, providing us with a more thorough understanding of our species both from our own personal familial perspectives and through the more macrocosmic lens of human history.”

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