How DNA testing ID’ed the last of the Romanovs

The Adventures in Genomics video series — produced by Illumina, a life sciences technology company — highlights the many discoveries and benefits of “next-generation” DNA sequencing. This recent episode tells the story of how, with the help of this powerful tool,  forensic scientist Mitch Holland helped to solve the nearly century-old mystery of where exactly the last member of the Russian royal family ended up. 

It came down to matching mitochondrial DNA from a known relative to the skeletal remains of what was suspected to be Tsar Nicholas Romanov II.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in humans is inherited only from the mother, and is therefore often used in genealogy. And mtDNA heteroplasmy is a mixture of two different mtDNA sequences that can be useful for identifying close relatives.

By comparing the mtDNA heteroplasmy from Tsar Nicholas’s brother,  Grand Duke Georgij Romanov, with that of the mystery skeleton, Holland and colleagues were able to prove that the mystery skeleton was indeed the murdered Tsar.

Holland has been at Penn State since 2005, and was key in developing the Forensic Science program here. The program is one of only five Forensic Science Professional Master’s Programs in the country and one of 38 undergraduate programs accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Science.

Members of the news media interested in talking to Holland should contact Barbara Kennedy at 814-863-4682 or

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