The Brilliantly Insane Plan to Reconstruct Leonardo da Vinci's Genome

By Maddie Stone on at

An international team of scholars has just unveiled plans to science the shit out of Leonardo da Vinci, the man who gave us the Mona Lisa and envisioned futuristic technologies like helicopters and tanks 500 years ago. Goals of the fledgling “Leonardo Project” include recovering the famous Renaissance figure’s remains and reconstructing his genetic code.

The Leonardo Project brings together geneticists, genealogists, archaeologists, and art historians from Italy, Spain, France, the United States and elsewhere. “This is a fabulous, interdisciplinary project,” said Rhonda Roby, a geneticist at the Craig Venter Institute in California, who will be contributing its expertise in genomic reconstruction to the effort.

By examining everything from paintings and notebooks to the DNA of living relatives, the team hopes to glean new insights into Leonardo’s life, diet, physical appearance, and genetic predispositions. If they’re very lucky, the researchers may be able to reconstruct most or all of Leonardo’s genome.

And if all that weren’t enough to make you re-evaluate your life goals, the team intends to wrap the Leonardo Project in just three years on the 500th anniversary of the artist/inventor’s death. A project roadmap is published today in the journal Human Evolution.

Ten years ago, the idea of obtaining even a scrap of DNA from a man who died in the Renaissance would have sounded absurd. But major advances in genomics have since enabled the reconstruction of wooly mammoth and Neanderthal genomes from fragments of ancient material. Meanwhile, forensic scientists have been adapting these tools for recovery of DNA traces from hair, drops of blood, saliva, and even fingerprints.

The Brilliantly Insane Plan to Reconstruct Leonardo da Vinci's Genome

Virgin on the Rocks, National Gallery, London. Image: Wikimedia

“More and more techniques are being developed to recover DNA from people touching things,” Roby said, citing Leonardo’s multitudinous notebooks as possible source material for the inventor’s genetic blueprints. “I also think there’s a possibility of biological material inside paintings,” she added. “The challenge would be actually getting that material out without damaging the artwork.”

A related aspect of the project involves identifying and studying Leonardo’s living descendants. Alessandro Vezzosi, director of Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, has already conducted an extensive reconstruction of Leonardo’s paternal lineage, and complementary efforts to trace his mother’s bloodline are now underway.

As Roy explains, these two sides of the family tree can yield different information. Since sons always inherit their father’s Y chromosome, the paternal lineage could lead us to men who have an exact replica of Leonardo’s own Y (or close — a few mutations can sneak in over 25 generations). Meanwhile, mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the mother. So by tracing his maternal lineage, we may discover descendants who share this portion of his heritage. DNA from modern relatives could then be compared with ancient samples in order to verify their identity.

There are myriad ways that Leonardo’s DNA can shed light on his life. Eye colour, hair colour, weight, height, predisposition to disease, and even the inventor’s famed visual acuity are all things scientists hope to learn more about.

“There are certainly individuals with exceptional senses,” Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and sponsor of the Leonardo Project’s 2015 and 2016 meetings, said during a press call. “People with exceptional sight and hearing, for instance. I think those qualities are among the genetic attributes we all have interest in.”

Another goal is to firmly identify and study Leonardo’s mortal remains. He is believed to be interred in the chapel Saint-Hubert at the Château d’Amboise, France, but the exact location of the grave is unknown. “Even if we had bones from that tomb, we would need to verify their identity by looking at the bones of his father, maybe the DNA on some of his artwork,” Ausubel said. “No single source of evidence is enough.”

While the project boasts a long list of academic partners, its goals are contingent on the cooperation of governments, private museums, and individuals. Bill Gates, for instance, is the owner of the famous Codex Leicester, an original collection of Leonardo’s scientific writings. Forensic scientists will have to court the billionaire’s favour in order to dust his £20 million book for fingerprints. Geneticists will need to convince the living relatives to participate in DNA studies that might reveal sensitive information. And the project will have to persuade the French government to grant it access to the historic chapel of Saint-Hubert.

It all sounds rather daunting, but Ausubel his colleagues are hopeful that the public will recognise the enormous scientific and cultural potential of their endeavour. Beyond shedding light on Leonardo’s life, the project might also serve as a testing ground for emerging technologies that can be applied to all manner of famous historic figures and artefacts.

“Overall, we feel this is an exciting frontier,” Ausubel said. “We hope the progress we make will be useful to museums around the world.”

“Leonardo himself is a person who loved puzzles,” he added. “He loved cryptology. I think part of the excitement and fun of this project is that it’s the sort of challenge he himself would have invented.”