Nov 10, 2022

Document Detectives Use Smudges and Bloodstains to Investigate the Past

From an article by Jo Marchant and published in the Smithsonian Magazine:

Proteins left behind on historic artifacts are revealing centuries-old secrets

One rainy morning in May, a Romanian archivist named Tudor Arhire retrieved a brown envelope from a wooden filing cabinet, slid out a small, yellowed page and placed it carefully on the table. Arhire is the custodian of a government archive in Sibiu, Romania, a medieval city in the region of Transylvania. Inside the grand, historic building, elegant windows and parquet floors contrasted with yellowed lace curtains and battered upholstery; on a desk in the corner, a pile of books and parchments spanned hundreds of years. The document he produced was a letter, more than 500 years old. Despite the ancient creases and stains, its nine lines of flowing Latin script, translated long ago, were clearly legible. But nobody here was intending to read it. Instead, two visitors, a married couple named Gleb and Svetlana Zilberstein, waited eagerly with latex gloves and plastic tubes.

The letter is one of the archive’s most precious possessions. Dated August 4, 1475, it was written to the burghers of Sibiu by a man describing himself as “prince of the Transalpine regions.” He informed the townspeople that he would soon be taking up residence among them. He signed with a name sure to strike fear into their hearts: Vlad Dracula.

The Zilbersteins were interested not in the words on the page, however, but something else—physical remnants of the prince himself, including molecule fragments from his sweat, saliva and tears. Their work harnesses breathtaking advances in a field known as proteomics, which seeks to understand the interaction of proteins within living cells and organisms. Proteins have long been studied in the context of biology and medicine, but spectacularly sensitive analytical techniques now allow researchers to use protein traces to gather intimate information from materials that were once primarily the domain of historians and archaeologists, opening a new window onto the past. The project is part of a scientific revolution that is profoundly expanding the type of information that can be gleaned from historical texts and artifacts, from X-ray and CT scanning to carbon dating and genetic sequencing.

Already, DNA is used to identify individuals from biological remains and reveal large-scale relationships, from family trees to evolutionary timelines. But DNA remains constant throughout a person’s life, and it degrades badly over time. Which is why researchers are also interested in proteins, the molecules DNA encodes and that do most of the work inside our cells. If DNA keeps a static record of our ancestry, proteins, which metabolize our food, store and transport resources, and carry messages from one place to another, provide a running commentary on our health and habits. They leave evidence of our diets, our illnesses, the drugs we use, even our cause of death. And they are left behind on everything we touch.

I found this to be a fascinating article. You can read all of it at:

Could this be used on documents left behind by one of our ancestors?

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