DNA from Beethoven’s hair gives insight into fatal liver disease

Using five hair locks, scientists found the famous music composer was genetically predisposed to liver disease and had a hepatitis B virus infection.

A mural of Ludwig van Beethoven is seen at a pedestrian tunnel ahead of his 250th birth anniversary in Bonn
A mural of Ludwig van Beethoven is seen at a pedestrian tunnel before his 250th birth anniversary in Bonn, Germany, December 13, 2019 [File: Leon Kuegeler/Reuters]

Using five locks of hair, scientists have sequenced the genome of one of history’s greatest musical composers – Ludwig van Beethoven – nearly two centuries after his death, gaining insight into his fatal liver disease but not his hearing loss.

Researchers said his genome showed the German composer was genetically predisposed to liver disease and had hepatitis B virus infection.

An autopsy after his 1827 death at age 56 in Vienna determined he had liver cirrhosis, a disease often caused by chronic drinking. The new findings suggest there were multiple factors behind his liver disease, including genetics, viral infection and alcohol consumption.

“Beethoven’s liver disease risk, which arises predominately from mutations in two genes – PNPLA3 and HFE – would have roughly tripled his risk for the full spectrum of progressive liver disease,” said the University of Cambridge biological anthropologist Tristan Begg, lead author of the study published in the journal Current Biology, on Wednesday.

“On their own, these risk factors are not of great concern to most people who have them, but there would have been a harmful interaction effect with his alcohol consumption,” Begg added. “Prior to this study, alcohol was the only definitely known risk factor for Beethoven’s liver disease.”

Hearing loss

The presence of the hepatitis B virus, incorporated into Beethoven’s genome, indicated a liver infection at least a few months before his death and maybe earlier.

Beethoven experienced progressive hearing loss starting at age 29 and by 44 it was complete, though he continued to compose masterpieces.

“We were ultimately unable to find a genetic explanation for Beethoven’s hearing loss, though this by no means precludes such an explanation, as several possible explanations could not be reliably or comprehensively evaluated,” Begg said.

There was no evidence found for conditions hypothesised by some experts, such as otosclerosis or Paget’s disease, Begg said.

This photo provided by researchers in March 2023, shows the Stumpff Lock, from composer Ludwig van Beethoven, in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. Hundreds of years after Beethoven's death, researchers have pulled DNA from strands of his hair — and found clues about what killed him, according to a study
This photo provided by researchers shows the Stumpff Lock from composer Ludwig van Beethoven in a laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany [Anthi Tiliakou/AP Photo]

A towering figure in the history of Western civilisation, Beethoven was a brilliant and innovative composer of symphonies, sonatas, concertos and other pieces, along with a single opera. Many of his works have become immortal, including his Symphonies No 5, No 6 and No 9, Moonlight Sonata, and Für Elise.

In 1802, Beethoven asked in a document called the Heiligenstadt Testament that his doctor publicly describe his hearing loss and other health issues after his death so that “as far as possible, at least the world will be reconciled to me”.

“Beethoven’s music continues to inspire millions nearly 200 years after his death,” Begg said.

“It was valuable to carry out this study first to attempt to satisfy Beethoven’s own wishes regarding the understanding of his health, but also in the interests of more accurately conveying the facts of his biography, which was also of concern to him,” he added.

The researchers analysed eight locks of hair from public and private collections in the United States and Europe, determining five matched and were almost certainly authentic as his.

The best-preserved one called the Stumpff Lock based on the name of a man who once possessed it, was used to sequence his genome.

Source: News Agencies