The composer Ludwig van Beethoven appears to have suffered from hepatitis B and a genetic risk for liver disease, which means that his love of wine may not have been the only cause of his death. So believes a group of geneticists who reconstructed the medical history of the musician, who died in 1827, using DNA tracks.
Beethoven died in Vienna nearly 200 years ago after a lifetime of composing some of the most influential works in classical music. Since then, biographers have sought to explain the causes of the German composer’s death at the age of 56, his progressive hearing loss and his fight against a chronic illness.
Liver failure, or cirrhosis, was the likely cause of Beethoven’s death brought about by a number of factorsincluding his alcohol consumption, said an international team of researchers who sequenced the composer’s genome using authenticated locks of his hair may now have some answers.
The composer enjoyed the drink so much that his last words, after receiving a gift of wine on his deathbed, were: “Too bad! Too late!”
“We looked at possible genetic causes of his three main symptom complexes: progressive hearing loss, gastrointestinal symptoms and liver disease that ultimately led to his death from liver failure,” she said. Markus Nothen of the Institute for Human Genetics at the University Hospital Bonnone of the co-authors.
Beethoven had “a strong genetic disposition to liver disease” and sequences of the hepatitis B virus were detected in her hair. “We believe the disease arose from an interaction of genetic disposition, well-documented chronic alcohol use, and hepatitis B infection,” Nothen said.
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Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said that hepatitis B “was probably quite common at that time in the early 19th century.” “At least in the last few months before his death he was infected with the hepatitis B virus,” Krause said.
“We cannot say definitively what killed Beethoven, but now we can at least confirm the presence of significant hereditary risk and hepatitis B virus infection.”Krause explained.
Investigators analyzed eight strands of hair purported to belong to Beethoven and determined that five of them were “almost certainly authentic,” he said. Tristan Begg, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study. “Because we reconstructed the genome from ultra-short DNA fragments, we only confidently mapped about two-thirds of it,” she said.
Researchers found no genetic cause for his famous deafnesswhich started with tinnitus and loss of high frequencies when he was twenty years old, leading to his near deafness in 1818. They also did not find a clear genetic cause for the “dreadful” abdominal pain and bouts of diarrhea that he suffered from the age of twenty, although celiac disease is ruled out and lactose intolerance.
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One popular theory was that Beethoven was rendered deaf by lead, used to sweeten wine in the 19th century.
That theory was largely based on a lock of hair known as the “Hiller Lock”, which was the subject of previous investigations and contained high levels of lead, believed to have belonged to the composer, now the new analysis suggests that it comes from a woman of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
Did Beethoven drink a lot of alcohol?
“We can deduce from the ‘conversation books‘ by Beethoven, which he used for the last decade of his life, which their alcohol consumption was very regular, although it is difficult to estimate the volumes consumed,” Begg said..
And while most sources point to its consumption being moderate by early 19th century Viennese standards, it is likely that it reached amounts of alcohol known today to be harmful to the liver.
“Based on the known medical history, it is very likely that -his death- it was due to some combination of these three factors, including his consumption of alcohol, acting in concertbut future research will have to clarify the extent to which each factor was involved,” Begg added.
a family secret
Beethoven, who born in Bonn in 1770 and died in 1827, he battled gastrointestinal problems at various times in his life, as well as jaundice. “There were periods of acute illness when he was unable to work, for example his month-long period of acute illness in the spring of 1825,” Begg said.
The researchers, studying Beethoven’s DNA data and archival documents, also discovered a discrepancy in his legal and biological genealogy.
They found an “extra-partner paternity event” – a child resulting from an extramarital affair – in Beethoven’s direct paternal line. sometime within seven generations of a common ancestor, Aert van Beethoven, in the late 16th century, and Ludwig’s birth in 1770, he explained Toomas Kivisild, Institute of Genomics, University of Tartu.
For Tristan Begg, it wasn’t a surprise that it went unrecorded: “One wouldn’t necessarily expect an extra-couple paternity event to be documented,” he said, being “probably clandestine in nature.” “It cannot be ruled out that Beethoven himself was illegitimate. I am not advocating that. I am simply saying that it is a possibility and must be considered.”
In 1821, Beethoven had the first of at least two bouts of jaundice, a symptom of liver disease..
The great man’s health and the cause of his death, in 1827, had been debated for two centuries, but previously without the benefit of genetic research.
Beethoven had requested in an 1802 letter to his brothers that his health problems, particularly his hearing loss, be described after his death. “He had a desire to be studied post-mortem,” Krause said. “And it’s basically his wish that we’re delivering to some degree on this project.”
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