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A meeting of proteomics and ancient art

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Autumn


Researchers may have discovered what ancient armorers used for glue using mass spectroscopy-based proteomics techniques and equipment.

What happens when you introduce a proteomics expert to an art conservator? Insight into ancient animal husbandry. This encounter happened on West Campus when Brandon Gassaway, a graduate student in the Department of Cellular & Molecular Physiology and in the Systems Biology Institute, worked with Anikó Bezur, Ph.D., the Wallace S. Wilson Director of the Technical Studies Lab at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

In collaboration with Yale University Art Gallery conservators Anne Gunnison and Irma Passeri, Bezur’s group was studying a third-century wooden shield unearthed by a French-Yale team in 1935 at a site called Dura-Europos, a former Roman border outpost in what is now Syria. Decorated with paintings of scenes from the Iliad, the shield was made of poplar slats glued together. Bezur and her colleagues suspected that the adhesive and the paint’s binder were made of animal protein, but their techniques didn’t allow them to get more specific. Her team asked Jesse Rinehart, Ph.D., associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology, and Gassaway whether they could figure out what the ancient artisans used as adhesives. Using mass spectroscopy-based proteomics techniques and equipment in the West Campus Analytical Core, Gassaway found the telltale signature of three proteins in the adhesives. The verdict: cow’s milk.

This finding was surprising, Bezur says—they were expecting a gelatin-based glue between the wood slats and egg in the paint—and they’re looking to verify it with other techniques.

“My lab is very excited about being in an environment where there’s so much biochemical and biological expertise,” Bezur says. “In return, we’re able to stretch the relevance of these tools not only to address medical questions but also to address questions that nurture the soul. Obviously, there are not that many lives that get saved by research on Roman shields, but ... to be able to marshal new technologies to get at answers we couldn’t even dream of before is really amazing. It allows us to be more responsible stewards of these treasures that speak to our shared human history.”

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