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TV Review: Dead Famous DNA

14 April 2014

By Chee Hoe Low

Appeared in BioNews 750

For a moment, I was expecting to see Napoleon's penis on a primetime television programme. Although I was ultimately let down, the ridiculous premise of the show was amusing enough to keep me entertained.

In Channel 4's new documentary series 'Dead Famous DNA', the vet-turned-TV presenter Mark Evans pursues a novel mission. His aim is to collect the DNA of the most famous people who have ever lived, with a view to getting it analysed, sequencing the complete genome for the benefit of future generations.

From the outset, I was hooked, wondering how exactly he would approach this. I expected ground-breaking results with the genome sequencing telling us about the lives of the famous dead, but in the end the show mainly seemed to be a vehicle for showcasing Mark Evans's various pensive, worried and inspired poses.

In the search for dead famous DNA, Evans found it difficult to confirm the authenticity of the bodily remains he attained. In fact, the majority of them were unusable. Big bucks were spent on hair supposedly belonging to Adolf Hitler and the 'mad king' George III, but they turned out to be a sham, with George III's sample exposed as actually being from a wig.

Flying all the way to Puerto Rico, Evans got hold of Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy's hair samples for the enormous amount of US $10,000. It turned out that both samples were useless for the purpose of extracting DNA, having been exposed to sunlight for a significant amount of time.

The most notable body part that he searched for was, undoubtedly, Napoleon's penis. The penis, preserved for almost 200 years, was kept safely in a tiny wooden box. Of course, it was not shown to the viewers. Only Evans saw the allegedly one-and-a-half-inch-long family jewel of the ruler of France, bought from an auction in Paris. In the end, the owner of the box (and its contents) refused to sell it to Evans, as genetic analysis of the penis would require at least an inch of the artefact: effectively, destroying it.

Most of the remains Evans got hold of were never successfully authenticated, let alone sequenced as originally intended. I personally doubt whether the searching process was in fact real in the first place. It seems to me that it would only take a few strands of hair from the barber down the road, a script and a few actors to stage the entire venture. The tiny box could have contained a shitake mushroom from Tesco, and we would never know.

The remains that got sequenced weren't particularly convincing either, with Evans frequently jumping to conclusions. Sequencing the hair that supposedly belonged to Elvis Presley, we learnt that the King of Rock and Roll had a genetic variant that put him at risk of developing a rare heart disease. Evans's interpretation, however, was that this was the true cause of Elvis's death. It should be noted that even the authenticity of Elvis's hair was guesswork, based on the fact that the hair belonged to someone who suffered from migraine, glaucoma and obesity. As Elvis too suffered from similar symptoms, Evans proclaimed: 'Surely this was the King's genome'.

Having reached this conclusion, he approached Tim Farrell, whose mother claimed that he is the illegitimate son of Elvis Presley. DNA samples were taken from Farrell in order to compare to the newly decoded genome. It turned out that they were not a genetic match, and the conclusion was that Farrell is not Elvis's son. The programme-makers didn't entertain the equally strong possibility that the hair does not belong to Elvis.

Evans went on to obtain and sequence Charles Darwin's beard, and concluded that Darwin died of Crohn's disease, an inheritable genetic disease where the bowel becomes inflamed. This time around, the evidence that the genome belonged to Darwin was much more convincing, but due to the beard's condition only 50 percent of the genome could be sequenced. With this in mind, it is unsure how accurate the findings were.

Venturing into an area so controversial, this programme had the potential to deliver something astounding. Instead, we were showered with images of lab coats, special computer-generated effects and suspenseful music. Everything was sugar-coated to make the programme seem like a scientifically ground-breaking documentary, but the evidence was nowhere near a scientifically acceptable standard.

Nonetheless, I must admit that the show definitely hooks its viewers in, for better or for worse. I genuinely can't wait to see what nonsense they will pull in the next episode. The teaser at the end of the programme showed scientists sequencing what was thought to be Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun's remains. It looks like this programme will continue in its effort to grab the headlines, however dubiously, because as the trailer showed, Hitler may have married a Jewish girl.

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