Dr Turi King - Men, genes and families

Dr Turi King has an unusual interest in men - she studies their Y chromosomes to track their family history.
07 September 2013

Interview with 

DR Turi King, Leicester University


Kat - Now it's time to take another look at genes and genealogy. Dr Turi King, at the University of Leicester has a particular interest in men - purely in the academic sense, of course. I spoke to her to find out how to trace men's genetic ancestry, and how to spot the Vikings in our midst.

Turi -   I've actually been mainly looking at Y-chromosomes.  So, I've been looking at the link between surnames and Y-chromosome.  I've been using surnames as a way to sample men as a way of looking at population movements in the past.  So for example, I'm interested in the Viking migration to the north of England.  And so, I'm looking for people who've got long ancestry in that area and how do you find people who've got long ancestry?  Well, we know that if people have surnames that are thought to have originated in that part of the country, chances are, their ancestry goes back to that country hopefully, to about the time when surnames start to become established about 700 years ago.

And then what I do is I look at men's Y-chromosomes and I do this on a population basis.  So, I'm looking at many men and I'm looking at the Y-chromosome types, and I'm looking to see whether or not as a population, they look like they've got a high proportion that looks like Scandinavian ancestry.

Kat -   What can you find from that?  What can you tell about the Vikings in our midst so far?

Turi -   Well, I'm still in the middle of this project, so I'm just finishing off the typing.  But it's actually a much larger extension of a pilot project that we did several years ago where we tried this, can you do surname base sampling, does it give you a better indication of what the population look like say, several hundred years ago, and we did that in the Wirral and West Lancashire.

So, we took men who had very old surnames from this region and then we compared them to men where we had just sampled them just on the basis of grandparental place of birth - was your grandparent born in this area? - okay, so your ancestry goes back at least a couple of generations.  And then we took men who had the very old surnames and then we kind of compared them and it was interesting because if we looked at the men with the old surnames from the region, they had higher proportions of what look like Viking ancestors, Scandinavian ancestry.  So, it looks like you can use certain surnames as a way of sampling individuals who look at population movements in the past.

Kat -   Now, this only works because a man has a Y-chromosome and that's passed from father to son, to son to son, and also, surnames are passed from father to their family and so on.  Does it get a bit difficult and mixed up in some cases where there's migration from different countries or in cases where surnames aren't inherited from their father?

Turi -   Yes.  So, I mean, I've just been concentrating on Britain, but obviously, there are parts of the world where surnames haven't been inherited from father to son for a very long time.  So, Norway is actually one of those places where it's relatively a recent thing to have heritable surnames.  So, it really does work in countries where you have this long tradition of heritable surnames where you get this Y-chromosome and surname, passing down together down through the generations.  It allows you to look at migration.  It's interesting in terms of looking at population movements because again, you can look for surnames that look like they come from other parts of the world.  And that would tell you probably a lot about more recent migration.

Kat -   What sort of work are you doing to try and understand in more depth where Britain's population has come from over recent centuries?

Turi -   Honestly, I'm mainly concentrating on the Viking migrations to Britain and using surnames as a way to sample individuals.  And then obviously, what I need to do is I need to have samples from Norway.  So, I've been sampling in Norway, finding men who have got long ancestry in regions of Norway.  So, I'm interested in knowing whether or not there's differences between populations in Norway. And then also, whether or not we can see within the Y-chromosomes of men living in the north of Britain, can we tie them back at all to any particular parts of Norway or does it just look like a mix with those kind of thing?  It's all kind of a work in progress at the moment.

Kat -   And the one thing that we do know is that Britain is a real patchwork of people that have come from all over the place.  Is there much known about some of the other migrations, where this mixed bag of people we call Britons has come from?

Turi -   Well, so that's really interesting because the reason why I can look at the Norse migration to Britain is because the frequencies a particular Y-chromosomes in Norway are slightly different from what you find in other parts of say, northern Europe.

Kat -   So, it's very characteristic of Vikings?

Turi -   Well, of the Norwegian populations.  So you get particular frequencies.  It's one of these things that is actually really, really difficult to look at things like the Norman migration or the Anglo-Saxon migration, or the Danish Viking migration because they are all migrations from the same part of Europe, just separated by a few generations.  So, you can't really tease out, "That's an Anglo-Saxon or that's a Danish Viking or that's a Norman" because there just hasn't been enough differentiation in the Y-chromosome types.  It's certainly not the level of typing that is available at the moment.

Kat -   And have there been any particularly exciting stories or very strange things that you found, maybe specific families that you thought that's a bit odd?

Turi -   Well, we had a really lovely case.  So, I was typing this chap and he lived in Leicester and I had done it through postal typing.  So, he just volunteered to take part in this surname project so I had no idea what he looked like or anything.  I was typing his Y-chromosome and I was doing this and I thought, "Okay, this is looking unusual."  He had a really rare African Y-chromosome type.  So, we thought, "Okay, what will we do?  We'll bring him in and ask him if he knows whether or not he's got African ancestry.  Maybe he's African Caribbean.  We're in Leicester.  It's a very multi-cultural city."  He came in and he just looked indigenous British and knew of no African ancestry, but he had this very interesting African Y-chromosome type. 

So, I sampled other men with the surname and about a third of them all carried this very rare type.  So, it's really nice.  I mean, the obvious way is, this Y-chromosome type came to the country is either through the Romans.  We know that they had a garrison of African soldiers guarding Hadrian's Wall and also through the slave trade, and that seems to be the most obvious route.  It brought huge numbers of people from Africa to be used as sort of domestic servants and musicians, and obviously, some of them would intermarry and so obviously, this interesting Y-chromosome type has become part of this family.  Hence, it's something really interesting in their past.

Kat -   Maybe one of the stories that's really hit the headlines you've been working on is about Richard the Third.  What can you tell me about that?

Turi -   I'm trying to do the Y-chromosome side and it's interesting because obviously, with royalty, you don't have this straight blink necessarily of a surname coming down through the generations because you've got - they're known as the Dukes of Beaufort or...

Kat -   But you do have quite good records.

Turi -   We do because there's Burke's Peerage.  Again, this was work that was done by Professor Kevin Shurer, who basically went back through Burke's Peerage and selected a number of individuals who would be distantly related wrote to them and asked them to take part.  They very kindly agreed to take part in the study.  At the moment, I have done the modern side of Y-chromosome typing.  It's just trying to see if I can get Richard to work as well.

Kat -   After all that time in a car park.

Turi -   That's right.  [laughing].

Kat -   And finally, have you had any of your genome analysed?  Are you curious about where you came from?

Turi -   I haven't funnily enough.  I know what my mitochondrial DNA type is because I had to do it as part of the Richard III project. And I've done my dad's Y-chromosome type for him and he is one of my controls that I use in the lab all of the time.  But I'm interested to this idea that people tie a lot of their identity and information about what they think about their ancestry to their genetics when obviously, we're all a mixture. 

Our genetic is complete patchwork of that of all of our ancestry.  Looking at the Y and mitochondrial DNA just tells you about two relatives.  I know that my ancestry is going to be quite complex genetically and I don't know, I just like that idea.  I like the fact that we all have very mixed complex ancestry in our genomes.  I'm not too worried about what's in there.

Kat - That was Dr Turi King, from Leicester University.


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