What’s more, unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA passes virtually unchanged from mother to child, with a predictable rate of mutation that gave Dr. Sykes and other researchers a way to draw links between modern populations and ancient ones.
After the success of “The Seven Daughters of Eve,” which allowed him to buy a second home in Edinburgh and a powder-blue Mercedes convertible with the license plate 7DEVE, Dr. Sykes set aside most of his academic work in favor of a career popularizing genetics through TV programs and general-interest books at a time when phrases like “DNA sequencing” were not yet household words.
He demonstrated an almost preternatural sense for distilling complex science through narratives and high-profile stunts, like “Bigfoot Files,” a three-part series that ran on British TV in 2013 in which he assessed claims about some three dozen hair and skin samples sent to him by cryptozoologists, people on the hunt for legendary creatures like the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman.
While his results were definitive and not in their favor, his conclusion was magnanimous. “Rather than persisting in the view that they have been ‘rejected by science’, advocates in the cryptozoology community have more work to do,” he wrote in a paper announcing his results. It was an encouraging statement that won him legions of fans among a section of the public that is often at odds with the scientific establishment.
“Bryan always wanted to be a gentleman scientist,” said Sue Foden, his first wife, in an interview. “He wanted science to be fun, and for people to enjoy.”
Bryan Clifford Sykes was born on Sept. 9, 1947, in Eltham, a suburb of London. His father, Frank Sykes, was an accountant. His mother, Irene (Clifford) Sykes, was a homemaker. He studied biochemistry at the University of Liverpool, received his Ph.D. from the University of Bristol and arrived at Oxford in 1973 to pursue a doctorate in science.
Dr. Sykes married Ms. Foden in 1978. They divorced in 1984 but remained close, and had a son, Richard, together in 1991. A second marriage, to Janis Wilson, also ended in divorce. Along with his son, he is survived by his brother, Nigel Sykes.