01 May 2008

DNA: Czar's children's remains confirmed

Another of history's mysteries has been solved - this time using DNA technology to determine family relationships and identity.

AP broke the story on DNA results confirming the identity of Alexei and Grand Duchess Maria, two children of Czar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra.

For nine decades after Bolshevik executioners gunned down Czar Nicholas II and his family, there were no traces of the remains of Crown Prince Alexei, the hemophiliac heir to Russia's throne.

Some said the delicate 13-year-old had somehow survived and escaped; others believed his bones were lost in Russia's vastness, buried in secret amid fear and chaos as the country lurched into civil war.

Now an official says DNA tests have solved the mystery by identifying bone shards found in a forest as those of Alexei and his sister, Grand Duchess Maria.

The remains of their parents — Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra — and three siblings, including the czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, were unearthed in 1991 and reburied in the imperial resting place in St. Petersburg. The Russian Orthodox Church made all seven of them saints in 2000.

In 1917, Nicholas abdicated and his family were taken and shot by firing squad on July 17, 1918 in Yekaterinburg. Persistent rumors said some of the family had escaped and survived. Readers will remember claims by women that they were Anastasia.

The bones were discovered last summer in a forest near Yekaterinburg; Russian and U.S. laboratories conducted DNA tests. Researchers believe the entire family has now been found. While the region's governor did not specify the lab, a research team at the University of Massachusetts Medical School had been involved.

Test results were based on mitochondrial DNA (materanl DNA transmitted from mothers to their children), which is more stable than Y-DNA (male) particularly when remains are damaged, as in the case of these bones which were shattered and burned.

Researchers compared the bone DNA with those of Empress Alexandra, a granddaughter of Britain's Queen Victoria and a distant relative of Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II's husband.

According to the story, the team is now working on analyzing the Y-DNA and comparing samples to the czar's paternal relatives.

Read more here.

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