Was Columbus actually Spanish? A new DNA study aims to discover explorer’s true origins

Researchers are restarting a DNA study of the remains of Christopher Columbus to try to settle the question of where the explorer came from.

Was Columbus actually Spanish? A new DNA study aims to discover explorer's true origins
Photo: A portrait of Christopher Columbus by Italian painter Domenico Bigordi

Was Columbus from the Italian port city of Genoa, as most historians believe? Or was he Spanish or Portuguese? There are several theories.

Five centuries after his death in 1506, this study could finally end the debate over the geographic origin of the navigator whose voyages on behalf of the Spanish monarchs between 1492 and 1504 opened the door to Europe’s colonisation of the Americas.

The results of this “pioneering study” are expected in October, Jose Antonio Lorente, a professor of forensic medicine at Granada who is leading the investigation, told a news conference.

Launched in 2003, the study achieved a major breakthrough after DNA tests established that bones in a tomb in the cathedral in the southern city of Seville were those of Columbus.

But it was suspended in 2005 because the research team felt that DNA technology at the time required a significant sample of the bones of the explorer “to obtain very little information”, said Lorente.

The research team decided to preserve the bones “until there was better technology” which can use small bone fragments as is the case today, he added.

The DNA of small bone fragments from Columbus which are stored at a vault at Granada University in southern Spain will be compared to those from the remains of suspected family members of the explorer.

Columbus in the court of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs. Artist: Juan Cordero, 1850 (Wikipedia)

It will also be compared with the DNA of people alive with the same family name as Columbus from the different parts of the world where he is believed to have come from.

While Lorente hopes the results will be “totally conclusive”, he acknowledged researchers were not certain they could obtain genetic samples from all the bones “in sufficient quantity and quality  to reach a conclusion”.

“The goal is to try to offer as much information as possible for historians and experts to interpret,” he added.

The study is being carried out with the University of Florence in Italy and the University of North Texas in the United States.

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Margarita Salas, Spain’s leading female scientist, dies aged 80

Margarita Salas Falgueras, Spain's leading female scientist whose work shaped the study of DNA, has died just before her 81st birthday.

Margarita Salas, Spain's leading female scientist, dies aged 80
Margarita Salas defied tradition views of a woman's role in Franco Spain to do amazing things. Photo: EPO

The 80-year-old from Asturias in northern Spain, defied the traditional role of women in Franco's Spain to become one of the leading molecular biologists in Spain and a pioneering female role model.

She won the presitigious life time achievement European Inventor Award 2019 in June.

Margarita Salas Falgueras, who was given the title of 1st Marquise of Canero, invented a faster, simpler and more reliable way to replicate trace amounts of DNA into quantities large enough for full genomic testing. Her invention based on phi29 DNA polymerase is now used widely in oncology, forensics and archaeology.

“DNA testing brings valuable new evidence to fields ranging from the life sciences to law enforcement. But the technique requires sizeable volumes of genetic material to yield trustworthy results,” explained the European Patent Office, announcing the prize.

“Until the 1980s, techniques such as the polymerase chain reaction, a molecular biology method to copy specific DNA segments, were used. These were slow and introduced mistakes in every few thousand DNA base pairs, making them unsuitable for application outside of the research laboratory.  

“Margarita Salas Falgueras led the breakthroughs that have since made DNA testing fast, reliable and used in a wide range of applications,” the statement said.

“The technique she invented is used today in medical research to study microbes that cannot be cultured in the laboratory. It has shed light on the earliest stages of embryonic development and allows oncologists to zoom in on small sub-populations of cells that could give rise to tumours.”

Patents filed by Salas have led to the commercialisation of user-friendly DNA-amplification kits. She filed her initial patent through the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and it remains the most profitable patent ever filed by the CSIC. It accounted for more than half the organisation's royalties between 2003 and 2009, returning millions in investment to publicly funded research.

Salas, who is now an Honorary Professor at CSIC, started her career in the US-based laboratory of Nobel-prize winner Severo Ochoa. She returned to her native Spain in 1967 to establish the country's first research group in the field of molecular genetics.

Despite financial limitations and lingering gender prejudice, Salas moulded her team into a world class and highly profitable public research centre. In addition to her role as a scientific pioneer, she is also a dedicated lecturer, having taught molecular biology at Madrid's Complutense University for 24 years.

Even in her 80th year, she continued to go to the laboratory every day.

What a hero.

Tributes flooded in with news of her passing, led by Spanish science minister Pedro Duque, a former astronaut. 

“Margarita Salas has left us, one of the most brilliant Spanish scientists in history. A pioneering woman, key in the great advances of biochemistry and molecular biology that have led to the progress of humanity.  A leader who will be missed so much,” he wrote.

READ MORE: Why this 80-year-old marquise is Spain's most inspiring woman and everyone should know her name