Today — when reading about the recent publication of a paper that has identified parts of the proteome of a fossil animal — I was overwhelmed by a whole array of nostalgic memories and reflections stemming from my short career as a paleoprotein chemist in Stockholm in the early 1970s.
I had studied chemistry, including biochemistry, before turning to zoology and what triggered my move into paleoproteins was a guest lecture by Harry Mutvei, expaining that the calciferous shells of marine organisms contain not only calcium crystals, but also organic material, including proteins. Mutvei tried to convince me to work with his favoured organisms, fossil cephalopoeds, but I wanted of course to work on something else. It so happened that one of my best birder friends, the late Krister Brood (bless his memory), had begun his dissertation studies at the Department of Historical Geology, making a conventional classification of Cretaceous cyclostome bryozooans, a fairly common group of fossils in many mesozoic strata, based on the appearance of their shells.
Maybe I could add some interesting aspects to the classification of these small creatures if I could used taxonomic data derived from proteins, which are closer to the genotype? The career strategy was simple: I enrolled in the paleontology classes and having passed the first exam I convinced the professsor, Ivar Hessland, to let me use a small room in his huge department to try find remains of proteins in fossils. Hessland hired my as a teaching instructor, generously bought me some equipmentm, and let me loose (that was the preferred method of research supervision 40 years ago, which I think, in many respects, is much better than the close surveillance postgrad students are exposed to today).
In the paper (published in Journal of Proteome Research) a group of protein scientists and natural history museum scientists here at the University of Copenhagen have identified a number of protein sequences in a bone from a woolly mammoth bone preserved in Siberian permafrost.
As they say, the methodology (mass spectrometry-based protein sequencing) “offers new perspectives for future molecular phylogenetic inference and physiological studies on samples not amenable to ancient DNA investigation”, and the approach therefore represents “a further step into the ongoing integration of different high-throughput technologies for identification of ancient biomolecules, unleashing the field of paleoproteomics.”