Proteins are getting older!

One of the most exciting aspects of this work, at least for someone who was previously limited by the radiocarbon limit, is the wider applicability of ZooMS to material covering not only the last 50,000 years but as many as a few million years. Recent publications have pushed the survival of animal proteins in tooth enamel to 1.77 Ma and 1.9 Ma– an exciting pushback in time! A nice write-up with comments from various researchers, including one of us, can be found here.

As for FINDER, we have been hard at work in 2019 both at the lab and travelling to places across Europe, Asia and Australia to access “new” old collections. We’ve hit 10,000 bones from Denisova Cave and analysed material from another 6 sites from northern Asia.

The oldest, protein- and DNA-containing human fossils from Denisova Cave can now be placed, comfortably, to ~200 ka  and possibly beyond this, and we will be reporting more on this as new data come out. For now, here are two pics of the student team (Samantha Brown and Naihui Wang) working at the labs in Jena.

Meeting “Denny” (again)

These have been exciting couple of months.

In early September we’ve reported in Nature, in a article led by our colleagues at the Genetics Department of the MPI-EVA, that Denisova 11, the tiny little bone we found during a pilot study and reported as Neanderthal based on her mtDNA, belonged in fact to a girl whose mother was a Neanderthal AND her father a Denisovan! This is the first unequivocal human we have so far whose parents belonged to two separate and now-extinct archaic human groups. How cool is that?

We had we previously named Denisova 11 “Denny” from the name of her last residence, and we never thought that she’d be as special, or as geneticist Pontus Skoglund put it “the most fascinating person who’s ever had their genome sequenced”.

The story made the cover of Nature’s September issue with the ingenious design of A. Günzel.

Nature cover Issue 7721 (September 2018) by Annette Günzel

There are several implications stemming from this work, not least the frequency of interbreeding between these human groups at the periphery (?) of their geographic ranges. The DNA analyses give us fascinating leads about population movement and the timing of it, since the Neanderthal mother of Denny shares more in common with a later Neanderthal from Vindija cave in Croatia than a Neanderthal found at Denisova Cave, all three fossils now sequenced to high coverage.

We have some ideas how to follow these leads with further work and if you’re interested in PhD research do get in touch.

IN-ZooMS workshop in Copenhagen

On Sunday 19th August 2018, FINDER project, along with colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, Prof. Matthew Collins and Dr Frido Welker, organised  a round table workshop on the current status, challenges and future prospects of peptide mass fingerprinting of archaeological collagen, the method also know as ZooArchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS).

The development and application of ZooMS has led to numerous  research projects and international collaborations over the past decade. These have broad chronological range and geographical spread and a wide scope, from the identification of early human fossils (FINDER’s main scope) to research on animals domestication or the use of specific animals and their byproducts in prehistoric and historic times. The use of ZooMS offers obvious advantages to the traditional zooarchaeological or more sophisticated genetic approaches. It is a fast, cheap and therefore a widely applicable methodology that requires minimum setup for sample preparation.

Contrasted with its potential, the technique has so far been only applied in a handful of laboratories in northern Europe and the USA, and little effort has been made to systematize the preparative protocols and the way results are communicated, managed and archived.

With this 1st meeting we brought together experts who intend to develop and/or apply ZooMS, at a current or new facility. Our aim was to integrate past experience with present knowledge and with the increasing number of studies using the method in archaeology, cultural heritage, ecology and conservation.

We discussed and agreed upon the creation of an International Network for ZooMS (IN-ZooMS), designed to encourage knowledge transfer between facilities and countries, foster open-access principles and create a platform for discussing best practices, eventually allowing synergies, across-lab collaborations and joint funding opportunities.  One of the main requests was the need for open-access, peptide fingerprint reference databases with a wide coverage of traditional as well as less researched regions.

The powerpoint slides, as well as and the programme of the ensuing conference Ancient Proteins @20, can be found on the link below:

More information on IN-ZooMS will follow soon, but for now, some pictures from the day.