Unraveling the Secrets of Ancient Antibodies: Insights from Palaeoproteomics

The Incisor explores a groundbreaking study on generations-old antibodies preserved in enamel, which has shown to be a treasure trove for exploring infectious human diseases.

By Ayesha Khan, MD, MBA

In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists have uncovered a remarkable source of information hidden within the enamel of teeth. Generations-old antibodies, preserved like time capsules, hold the potential to revolutionize our understanding of human infectious health conditions. This exciting breakthrough promises valuable insights into ancient diseases and their impact on human populations throughout history.


Antibodies, the powerful proteins the immune system produces, play a crucial role in defending the body against infectious organisms. In a groundbreaking study published in iScience, researchers from the University of Nottingham and University College London have made an astonishing discovery.

Professor Robert Layfield and research technician Barry Shaw and their team extracted whole antibody molecules with intact disulfide bonds from 800-year-old medieval human teeth. These antibodies, passed down through generations and produced by our ancestors' immune systems, offer a unique glimpse into the pathogens they encountered and fought off. The team was astonished at the unexpected finding of intact and functional antibodies in skeletal remains capable of recognizing viral proteins or antigens on western blot.

Preservation of Ancient Antibodies

The emerging field of palaeoproteomics focuses on analyzing ancient proteins. Ancient proteins such as antibodies present unique advantages compared to ancient DNA (aDNA) in scientific research. These proteins are more stable in microenvironments where aDNA may degrade, making them a reliable source of information from the past. Ancient protein analysis is intriguing because it detects post-translational modifications, such as phosphorylation, and potentially retains biological functionality. This opens unparalleled opportunities for delving into the history and evolution of diseases, offering valuable insights into our ancient past.

It has been discovered that certain proteins possess remarkable stability and can endure for millions of years within mineralized tissues while still retaining their identity. For example, more than 126 unique protein components (such as plasma proteins) were previously extracted from the skeletal remains of a 43,000-year-old woolly mammoth. In another study, various growth factors were extracted from early Middle-aged archaeological skeletal and dentin remains.

Enamel, the protective outer layer of teeth, has long been recognized as a valuable reservoir of genetic information. For example, in the realm of forensic identification, teeth and bones serve as invaluable sources of DNA when dealing with degraded or fragmented human remains. Due to their distinctive composition and secure placement within the jawbone, teeth offer enhanced DNA protection compared to bones, rendering them highly favorable for DNA extraction purposes across various scenarios.

Implications of the Discovery of Ancient Antibodies from Medieval Teeth

The field of ancient protein sequencing is opening remarkable possibilities for gaining fresh perspectives on various aspects of our past, present, and future.

  • Understanding Migration, Environment, Diet, and Disease: By analyzing ancient antibodies, researchers can delve into the intricate details of species migration, uncovering valuable information about how different organisms responded to changing environments and adapted to new habitats throughout history. These protein sequences can also shed light on the diets and lifestyles of our ancestors, offering glimpses into the types of foods they consumed and the activities they engaged in. Moreover, the study of ancient antibodies has the potential to provide insights into the prevalence and evolution of human diseases over time, enabling us to better understand the health challenges faced by our predecessors. With each discovery, the realm of ancient protein sequencing expands, promising novel understandings of our collective human story.
  • Unraveling the Secrets of Ancient Diseases: The researchers discovered that antibodies extracted from medieval teeth could recognize the Epstein-Barr virus, the causative agent of glandular fever. This finding suggests that these ancient antibodies retained their ability to identify viruses even after centuries of preservation. Understanding the immune response of individuals from the past could provide valuable information about diseases prevalent during those periods. For example, this newfound knowledge illuminates the genetic characteristics and immune responses that saved certain individuals from the Black Death's grasp and propels further investigation into the influential factors that shaped its devastating reach. Previously, Barry Shaw and his research team employed mass spectrometry (MS)-based sequencing techniques to analyze non-collagenous proteins extracted from human bones and teeth dating back 800 years and were successfully able to retrospectively diagnose an atypical manifestation of Paget's disease, a skeletal disorder characterized by abnormal bone remodeling.
  • Implications for Modern Science: Preserving generations-old antibodies in dental enamel opens up new avenues of research for understanding human infectious health conditions. This wealth of information can provide crucial insights into the evolution of pathogens, the efficacy of ancient immune responses, and the development of potential treatments and vaccines. Utilizing cutting-edge techniques such as ancient DNA analysis and proteomics, scientists can extract and analyze these antibodies with unprecedented precision. By combining this data with advancements in bioinformatics and computational modeling, researchers can reconstruct the complex interactions between pathogens and the human immune system throughout history.

In Conclusion

The extraction of intact and functional antibodies from 800-year-old medieval human teeth represents a groundbreaking achievement in palaeoproteomics. Professor Rahman and Professor Layfield's collaborative study has demonstrated the stability of antibodies over long periods, opening up new possibilities for investigating ancient diseases. With further research, scientists may gain valuable insights into the evolution of the human immune system and its response to various pathogens throughout history. The study paves the way for future investigations into ancient diseases, potentially revolutionizing our understanding of the past and informing strategies to combat present and future health challenges.

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Author: Ayesha Khan, MD, MBA, is a registered physician, former research fellow, and enthusiastic blogger. With a wide range of articles published in renowned newspapers and scientific journals, she covers topics such as nutrition, wellness, supplements, medical research, and alternative medicine. Currently serving as the Vice President of Social Communications and Strategy at Renaissance, Ayesha brings her expertise and strategic mindset to drive impactful initiatives. Follow her blog for insightful content on healthcare advancements and empower yourself with knowledge.

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