Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system as a natural response to infectious organisms such as viruses and bacteria. Teeth may be able to store antibodies for hundreds of years, allowing scientists to probe the history of infectious human diseases.
Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system as a natural response to infectious organisms such as viruses and bacteria. Their job is to recognize these microbes so that the immune system can attack them and remove them from the body.
Antibodies extracted from 800-year-old medieval human teeth were found to be stable and still able to recognize viral proteins.
The study, led by Professor Robert Layfield and research engineer Barry Shaw from the School of Life Sciences, University of Nottingham, in collaboration with Professor Anisur Rahman and Dr Thomas McDonnell from the Department of Medicine at University College London, extends the study of ancient proteins. referred to as paleoproteomics, which potentially allows experts to analyze how human antibody responses have evolved throughout history.
Paleoproteomics can reach back into deep time with ancient proteins already successfully recovered and identified after preservation in 1.7-million-year-old tooth enamel of an ancient rhinoceros and more than 6.5-million-year-old ostrich eggshells. In this new study, the authors also found preliminary evidence that, like medieval human teeth, nearly 40,000-year-old mammoth bones appear to preserve stable antibodies.
This science has previously been applied by the Nottingham team to analyze other disease-associated proteins recovered from archaeological human bones and teeth to identify an unusual ancient form of the skeletal disorder Paget’s disease.
Professor Layfield explained: “In discovery science we expect the unexpected, but finding that intact functional antibodies could be recovered from skeletal remains in the archaeological record was quite astonishing. Some ancient proteins were known to be stable, but these tend to be “structural” proteins such as collagens and keratins, which are quite inert.
Professor Rahman added: “Antibodies are different because we are able to test whether, even after hundreds of years, they can still do their job of recognizing viruses or bacteria. In this case, we found that antibodies from medieval teeth were able to recognize the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever. In the future, it may be possible to observe how antibodies from ancient samples react to diseases present during these periods such as the Black Death.