In the summer of 1991, the remains of nine people were unearthed from a shallow grave in central Russia. Forensic experts and DNA studies suggested that the skeletons likely were those of the last tsar, Nicholas II, the tsarina, and three of their five children, whose bodies had disappeared after they were shot by the Bolsheviks in July 1918. A new study, however, challenges this verdict.
The original DNA studies were carried out by Pavel Ivanov, a molecular biologist at the Engelhardt Institute of Molecular Biology in Moscow, and colleagues. From extracted DNA the team amplified short pieces of DNA, which confirmed that five of the victims were closely related. The team also compared mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) fragments from the nine skeletons to blood samples from living, but distant, relatives. The presumed tsarina and the children matched Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh--a grand nephew of the tsarina. But the tsar's mtDNA didn't exactly match two living descendants of his maternal grandmother. Nevertheless, the group reported in 1994 that the odds of the remains not being those of the Romanovs were no less than 700 to 1.
In the current issue of the Annals of Human Biology, a team led by molecular systematist Alec Knight of Stanford University mounts a blistering attack on the original DNA analysis. Knight and colleagues contend that the discovery and removal of the remains is "characterized by extreme irregularities at every level." The most damning shortcoming, they charge, is that the samples of old DNA must have been contaminated with fresh DNA that skewed the analysis. They argue that the fragments sequenced, including one of 1223 base pairs, were too long to have come from the damaged bones. The skeptics contribute some new data--a DNA analysis of the shriveled finger of the tsarina's sister, the Grand Duchess Elisabeth. The sequence did not match the reported sequence of the tsarina. All told, says Knight, "the evidence does not support the claim that the remains are those of the Romanov family."
"That's nonsense," fires back Ivanov. He dismisses the contamination charge and argues that the Knight team's assertions are too weak to warrant debate. According to Knight, one possible way to settle the identity of the tsarina, at least, is to invite other living descendants of Queen Victoria, her maternal grandmother, to donate blood and sequence their mtDNA.