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DNA from Beethoven’s Hair Unlocks Family Secret

Ludwig van Beethoven’s impressive head of hair is yielding new clues about his health problems and his ancestry.

Friends kept locks of the composer’s hair as keepsakes, and some snipped tokens of remembrance at his deathbed. Nearly two centuries later, an international team of researchers said they used some of those strands to sequence Beethoven’s genome, the complete set of DNA found in every cell.

The researchers reported in a paper published Wednesday in the journal Current Biology that they hoped studying his DNA might help determine the cause of Beethoven’s progressive hearing loss, chronic gastrointestinal complaints and severe liver disease culminating in his death at the age of 56 in 1827.

Historians and medical scholars have long mined Beethoven’s journals and letters for clues about his health troubles. They were inspired by a document found a day after his death in Vienna in a hidden compartment of his writing desk. Addressed to his brothers, Beethoven requested that details about his medical ailments be made public after his death.

The researchers didn’t find a genetic cause for Beethoven’s deafness or stomach pain. They found genetic risk for liver disease and evidence of hepatitis B infection, which can lead to scarring of the liver known as cirrhosis.

The analysis also revealed unexpected findings about Beethoven’s ancestry and the origins of some of the locks of hair.

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