Scientists Plan to Reconstruct Leonardo da Vinci's Genome

Nearly 500 years after his death, researchers hope to learn more about what da Vinci was like.

Kirstin Fawcett
09 . 05 . 16

Nearly 500 years after his death, the world continues to be fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci. To learn more about the renowned Renaissance polymath, Gizmodo reports that an international team of scholars—including geneticists, genealogists, archaeologists, and art historians—plan to sequence Leonardo's genome. 

Founded in 2014, the high-tech endeavour is called “The Leonardo Project." It comprises academics from institutions in France, Italy, Spain, Canada, along with specialists from the J. Craig Venter Institute of California, who originally helped sequence the human genome.

Inspired by new advances in genomics, which allow scientists to collect preserved DNA traces from hair, fingerprints, and skin cells, the project’s researchers plan to gather Leonardo's genetic information from items he touched. They’ll take samples from the visionary’s paintings, journals, and sketches, which they hope to borrow from current owners like Bill Gates, the Vatican, and Queen Elizabeth II, as well as museums and governments. 

For more DNA evidence, the researchers will continue mapping Leonardo’s family tree to study the genetics of his living relatives. They'll also use radar to scan the floors of an old Italian church to find the buried bones of his father and other family members, Science Alert reports

Project members hope that Leonardo’s DNA will yield new clues about his lifestyle, appearance, and other traits. Another goal? To identify and study his remains, The Telegraph reports, which are believed to have been uprooted during Europe’s tumultuous 16th century.

Scientists plan to examine some bones interred in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in France's Loire Valley, rumored to belong to the Italian visionary. By extracting DNA from the relics and comparing it with their findings, the researchers hope to solve the mystery of his final resting place, and potentially use models of Leonardo's skull to create a reconstruction of his face, The Independent writes.

The Leonardo Project published their full research plan in a special edition of the journal Human Evolution earlier this week. If all goes well, members of the project hope to announce their findings by the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death in May 2019.

Of course, the quest to sequence the genome of the consummate Renaissance man faces many hurdles—namely convincing living relatives to participate in studies, and gaining access to priceless artifacts and Saint-Hubert. However, it’s still exciting to imagine what kind of scientific insights Leonardo’s DNA might yield. It's also exactly the type of scientific project that the man himself might have pioneered if he'd lived in modern times, one of the project's founders, Jesse Ausubel, said in a release.

“I think everyone in the group believes that Leonardo, who devoted himself to advancing art and science, who delighted in puzzles, and whose diverse talents and insights continue to enrich society five centuries after his passing, would welcome the initiative of this team—indeed would likely wish to lead it were he alive today," Ausubel said. He is the vice-chairman of the Richard Lounsbery Foundationa philanthropic organisation that helped fund The Leonardo Project.

[h/t Gizmodo]