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Genetics expert solves family mysteries for new TV series

A leading genetics expert from the University of Leicester is part of team seeking to solve ‘DNA Family Secrets’ for a new primetime programme on the BBC.

Turi King is Professor of Public Engagement and Genetics at the University of Leicester, and features alongside Stacey Dooley in the three-part series starting Tuesday 2 March at 9.00pm on BBC Two.

With more than 26 million people in the UK having taken a DNA test in the past decade, the growing popularity of genetic testing has created a network of databases that can answer questions previously impossible to solve about our families, ancestry and health.

Professor King – also part of the team who discovered the remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park and lead the genetic and statistical analysis confirming his identification – lends her expertise in the field of genetics to help reveal lost heritage and track down missing relatives. She said:

“I love human stories, and this programme is all about using DNA to answer the family questions, not just about ancestry but medical conditions that could have real implications on people’s lives.

“It really shows the power of what DNA can do in terms of helping people.

“This kind of work is incredibly rewarding – I love this part of my job! You know that you are changing someone’s life, and that’s a huge responsibility.

“With some people you know you’re giving them an answer that they weren’t expecting, and for others it makes them feel complete and content with something that could have been troubling them for years.”

Professor King and the team use genetic techniques to help families and individuals including 75-year-old Bill, whose father was an African American GI stationed at a World War II airbase near Loughborough.

They analyse his DNA to find out his ancestry, to see if he has any living relatives in the USA and ultimately try to find out what happened to his father.

Elsewhere, Charlie finds out that her father has Huntingdon’s disease – a debilitating terminal illness without any cure. Caused by a faulty gene, Charlie takes the brave step of finding out whether or not she also carries the gene, and what that would mean for her husband, Rob, and her young son. 

Janine from Leicester grew up knowing that the father who raised her was not her biological father but her mother went to her grave never telling her who he was. She knew from her own skin and hair colour that she is likely of mixed ancestry. Can DNA help her find out something about him and where he was from?

Professor King continued:

“We start with a salvia sample and look at various genetic markers across the entire genome.

“Depending on the question, we’ll examine different things – for family history it’s about looking for people that share DNA, and for ancestry it’s looking for where you get matches in different parts of the world.

“For medical questions scientists will zoom in on genes known to be involved in a particular disease and analyse their genetic makeup to see if they’re likely to develop a certain condition.”

The series continues the University’s long history in the field of DNA research, with the now-commonplace forensic technique of DNA fingerprinting pioneered in the early 1980s at Leicester by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys.

More recently, Professor King has been lead on ‘The King’s DNA’ project, which involves sequencing the entire genome of Richard III to determine the genetic make-up of the last Plantagenet monarch.

DNA Family Secrets will be broadcast at 9.00pm on Tuesday 2 March on BBC Two.

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