The possibility that Princess Anastasia, the youngest daughterof Czar Nicholas II, somehow escaped the 1918 execution of theRussian royal family has tantalized romantics for decades.Anna Anderson, one claimant to the princess' title, was thesubject of a 1955 Life magazine article. The following year,Ingrid Bergman starred in a movie about the story. Anderson'sstar waned, and in 1963, Life ran a cover story called "The Caseof a New Anastasia" -- one Eugenia Smith of Chicago.

But alas for Anastasia buffs, the Bolsheviks had hidden theremains of the Romanovs to prevent the royal resting placefrom becoming a counter-revolutionary shrine, HarvardUniversity historian of Russia Richard Pipes told BioWorld.Anderson died in 1984.

Coincidentally, that was the year Kary Mullis invented thepolymerase chain reaction (PCR), which has revealed secretsfrom bones far more ancient than these. In 1991, a gravecontaining nine people was discovered near Ekaterinberg, thecity where the execution took place.

Comparisons of teeth and bones with medical and dentalrecords provided strong evidence that five of the nine were theczar, his wife and three of their daughters. The crown prince,Alexis, and, it appeared, Anastasia, were missing.

Now, Peter Gill of the British government Home Office'sForensic Science Service Laboratory and Russian DNA specialistPavel Ivanov have confirmed the identities of the bodies usingPCR. They used the thermal cycler DNA amplification systemand model 373 DNA sequencer from Perkin Elmer's AppliedBiosciences Division.

Comparing mitochondrial DNA from the bones with that of thefamily's living relative, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh,proved virtually beyond a doubt that four bodies wereRomanov women. One's mitochondria, the cellular engines ofmetabolism, were clones of maternal mitochondria. Philip'smaternal grandmother was Czarina Alexandra's sister.

The czar's identity was verified by comparing his mitochondrialDNA with that of two living maternal relatives. "This puts thefinal touch on that so-called mystery," Pipes told BioWorld. Thefindings were consistent with a description of the executionfrom a note written by the leader of the death squad, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office told BioWorld that thelaboratory had undertaken the project not out of romance, but"to further techniques of DNA profiling so that you can find outmore about (people's) ages to help with police investigations, sothat perhaps even old cases that have been on the books maybe resolved."

She added that "a report from the Royal Commission onCriminal Justice suggested we set up a national DNA bank, likea fingerprint bank."

As for Anastasia, a spokeswoman told BioWorld that the HomeOffice has received offers of biological samples from womenwho claimed to be Anastasia, and she believes that thelaboratory actually possesses a lock of Anna Anderson's hair.But "it would be very difficult to do the test with any greataccuracy on hair," she said.

"Apart from the hair, we haven't been approached by anyonewho has a verifiable source of human remains," thespokeswoman said. "Obviously, although we could do DNA tests,we (could not vouch) for the authenticity of where (thebiological materials) had come from."

Nonetheless, the Home Office has hinted broadly that such testsmay be done. But Harvard's Pipes isn't staying up nights inanticipation. In his book, The Russian Revolution, he spent achapter describing the execution. "We have detaileddescriptions from a number of eyewitnesses," he said. All themembers of the royal family were shot, he asserted.

As for the missing bodies, Pipes said they were all burned andthen treated with a powerful solution of sulfuric acid (used atthe time in the environs of Ekaterinberg to process platinum).Perhaps, he said, nothing was left of the youngest and smallestRomanovs, Alexis, 14, and Anastasia, slightly older.

But no doubt, Anastasia buffs will be waiting for newrevelations through the agency of PCR.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.