Scientists look for Columbus' home

GENETIC TRACES: Using DNA samples from possible descendants, Spanish scientists hope to determine once and for all where the famed explorer came from

AFP , BARCELONA

Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 6

Where did Christopher Columbus come from? The question has puzzled historians for centuries -- and now a massive international DNA search is trying to unravel the answer.

With four months to go until the 500th anniversary of the death of the great explorer, a team of Spanish scientists is hoping that samples of DNA from his known or presumed descendants in France, Italy and Spain will yield a clue.

Most historians say Columbus came from Genoa, but experts have made a case for the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, Corsica, Portugal, France and even England.

"We are trying to piece together a genetic map of the Columbus family in several areas of the Mediterranean where various theories have it Christopher Columbus was born," says Jose Antonio Lorente from the University of Grenada.

"Eventually, we will be able to see which region the DNA Y-chromosome of Colum-bus has most affinity with, and where probably we can surmise he originated," says Lorente, who is an expert in the identification of DNA samples.

saliva sample

More than 120 people with the family name Colom -- the Catalan derivative -- gave a saliva sample.

In the French region of Perpignan just over the border, 18 people with similar names such as Colomb or Coulom also did the test.

In Italy, samples will be taken from people with the family name Colombo.

Lorente hopes to publish results in time to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus's death in the Spanish city of Valladolid on May 20, 1506.

DNA profile

Lorente's laboratory is seeking to determine the variety and DNA profile of the Y-chromosome (transmitted in identical fashion from fathers to male offspring) of people living in a single area who could be descended from Columbus.

The samples will be compared with those of the explorer's elder son, Hernando, whose remains lie in Seville Cathedral.

Columbus fascinates Lorente, who has taught at the FBI academy in the US and whose work has allowed the identification of victims of Spain's 1936-1939 civil war as well as those of Latin American dictatorships.

Lorente is particularly curious how Columbus continued on his travels even in death, with his remains first taken to Santo Domingo and then to Cuba before being sent to Spain in 1898.

remains exhumed

In 2003 Lorente had the explorer's supposed remains exhumed from his tomb in Seville to compare the mitochondrial DNA, handed down from mothers to children, with samples from his brother Diego, whose remains have been authenticated at their resting place in the southern region of Andalusia.

The small sample of bones, weighing only a total of 150g, coupled with their poor condition, has made identification difficult.

Even so, "the preliminary results show up an identity between the mitochondrial DNA of Christopher and Diego Colum-bus which allows us to think that the Seville remains are indeed those of the navigator," Lorente says.