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Bona fide colour: DNA prediction of human eye and hair colour from ancient and contemporary skeletal remains

Jolanta Draus-Barini1, Susan Walsh2, Ewelina Pośpiech4, Tomasz Kupiec1, Henryk Głąb3, Wojciech Branicki14* and Manfred Kayser2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Forensic Research, Section of Forensic Genetics, Kraków, Poland

2 Department of Forensic Molecular Biology, Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

3 Department of Anthropology, Institute of Zoology, Faculty of Biology and Earth Sciences, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

4 Department of Genetics and Evolution, Institute of Zoology, Faculty of Biology and Earth Sciences, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

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Investigative Genetics 2013, 4:3  doi:10.1186/2041-2223-4-3

Published: 14 January 2013



DNA analysis of ancient skeletal remains is invaluable in evolutionary biology for exploring the history of species, including humans. Contemporary human bones and teeth, however, are relevant in forensic DNA analyses that deal with the identification of perpetrators, missing persons, disaster victims or family relationships. They may also provide useful information towards unravelling controversies that surround famous historical individuals. Retrieving information about a deceased person’s externally visible characteristics can be informative in both types of DNA analyses. Recently, we demonstrated that human eye and hair colour can be reliably predicted from DNA using the HIrisPlex system. Here we test the feasibility of the novel HIrisPlex system at establishing eye and hair colour of deceased individuals from skeletal remains of various post-mortem time ranges and storage conditions.


Twenty-one teeth between 1 and approximately 800 years of age and 5 contemporary bones were subjected to DNA extraction using standard organic protocol followed by analysis using the HIrisPlex system.


Twenty-three out of 26 bone DNA extracts yielded the full 24 SNP HIrisPlex profile, therefore successfully allowing model-based eye and hair colour prediction. HIrisPlex analysis of a tooth from the Polish general Władysław Sikorski (1881 to 1943) revealed blue eye colour and blond hair colour, which was positively verified from reliable documentation. The partial profiles collected in the remaining three cases (two contemporary samples and a 14th century sample) were sufficient for eye colour prediction.


Overall, we demonstrate that the HIrisPlex system is suitable, sufficiently sensitive and robust to successfully predict eye and hair colour from ancient and contemporary skeletal remains. Our findings, therefore, highlight the HIrisPlex system as a promising tool in future routine forensic casework involving skeletal remains, including ancient DNA studies, for the prediction of eye and hair colour of deceased individuals.

Skeletal remains; Forensic DNA phenotyping; Eye colour; Hair colour; HIrisPlex; Ancient DNA; Human appearance; Władysław Sikorski