Acclaimed author, geneticist, and one of the first scientists to publish on the retrieval and amplification of DNA from ancient bones, Bryan Sykes died on December 10, 2020, at the age of 73. His wife Ulla Plougmand, a painter, confirmed his death to The New York Times and did not provide a cause, though there have been reports that he had been in increasingly poor health in his last years.
Sykes was born in London in 1947. Following the completion of his molecular biology PhD at the University of Bristol in 1973, he came to the University of Oxford to research collagen and elastin. Over the next 15 years, he began incorporating genetic analysis into his research, The Guardian reports.
In the 1980s, Sykes was among the first to determine that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed along from mother to child, could be used to track maternal lines. Unlike DNA found in the nucleus of the cell, mtDNA rarely mutates. It can be reliably traced back generations, even, Sykes hypothesized, back to the origins of humanity. In the 1990s, he used this approach to form models to better understand human migration.
The first foray into mainstream attention for Sykes came in the early 1990s, when he sequenced DNA from the bones of a 5,000-year-old mummy called Ötzi (also known as Iceman) that had been recovered from the Alps. A few years later, he sequenced the DNA from 10,000-year-old remains of an ancient Brit known as Cheddar Man.
See “Ancient Ancestry”
In 2000, Sykes founded Oxford Ancestors, a spin-off from the university that provides genetic lineages via direct-to-consumer DNA sequencing for either maternal lines with mtDNA or on the paternal side, via the Y chromosome. Men with links back to ancient Britain and Ireland might even be able to learn which tribe their male ancestors were in.
Sykes has written six books on genetics, with the most popular being 2001’s The Seven Daughters of Eve. The book, written for a lay audience, claimed that nearly all women of European descent can trace their ancestry back to a small group of seven prehistoric women who lived up to 45,000 years ago. Those women, in turn, descended from the mitochondrial “Eve,” an ancient African-born woman, the book said.
As more sophisticated sequencing techniques emerged, many of the claims in the book have been overturned or reframed, though it would hardly be the last time he would earn criticism from his peers.
In 2006, Oxford Ancestors claimed that a DNA sample from a man in Florida was directly related to Genghis Kahn, only for another company to prove the claim wrong a week later. In 2015, he appeared on the TV series “Bigfoot Files,” where he analyzed samples that some believed to belong to the fictitious Bigfoot. Ultimately, the samples came from a polar bear, and he received criticism for his participation in the three-part show.
“He wasn’t a snob about making the public a primary audience for his work, like a lot of us,” David Reich, a Harvard geneticist, tells the Times. “And it’s good not to be a snob.”
In addition to his wife Ulla, Sykes is survived by his first wife, Sue Foden, with whom he remained close throughout his life, The Guardian reports, and their son Richard, who was born in 1991.