Dec 16, 2022

550-Year-Old Clue to Life of Vlad the Impaler Emerges

Perhaps he was simply a friendly next-door neighbor. Maybe not. Scientists are hoping ‘historical biomolecules’ on a 15th-century missive written by Vlad Dracula, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s vampire count, will reveal more about him.

A 16th-century portrait of Vlad III, more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula. Photograph: Ian Dagnall Computing/Alamy

On a dark and stormy night in May this year, exactly 125 years to the day that Bram Stoker published the definitive vampire novel, two people pored over a document more than 500 years old in a room in Transylvania – signed by Dracula himself.

Gleb and Svetlana Zilberstein’s mission? To extract genetic material from the letters written by Vlad Dracula – the historical inspiration for Stoker’s vampiric count – left there by his sweat, fingerprints and saliva.

And from that, the pair, who have been dubbed “protein detectives” – though they prefer “historical chemists” – can build up a picture of not only the physical makeup of the Wallachian warlord who became known as Vlad the Impaler for his practice of displaying his enemies on stakes, but also the environmental conditions in which he lived.

“It was mystical that we were extracting Dracula’s molecules on the day that Bram Stoker’s novel was published 125 years ago,” said Gleb Zilberstein. “We did not specifically plan this date. All night, after the extraction of Dracula’s molecules, it rained, dogs howled and lightning flashed. It was really a very magical atmosphere. Count Dracula blessed his release from the Romanian archive.”

Zilberstein’s sense of the theatrical belies the pioneering science at the heart of what he and Svetlana do. He said: “Our job is to find the biochemical traces left from the time when the historical object was created or when it was used by some historical figure.

“When ‘historical biomolecules’ are found, we begin to analyse them. That is, to determine the molecular composition and age of historical molecules. We mainly determine proteins and metabolites.”

“These molecules are more stable than DNA and provide more information about the environmental conditions, health, lifestyle, nutrition of the historical person to whom the historical molecules belonged.”

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