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Anal Chem. 2008 Jun 15;80(12):4590-7. doi: 10.1021/ac800515v.

Identification of protein remains in archaeological potsherds by proteomics.

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Chimie Organique et Macromoléculaire, UMR CNRS 8009, and Protéomique, Modifications Post-traductionnelles et Glycobiologie, IFR 147, Université des Sciences et Technologies de Lille, 59655 Villeneuve d'Ascq Cedex, France.


We demonstrate here the possibility of identifying proteins trapped in few milligrams of the clay matrix of a 1200-1400 AD Iñupiat potsherd fragment from Point Barrow, Alaska, by a dedicated proteomics approach. The four main steps of a proteomics analysis, (i) protein extraction from biological samples, (ii) protein hydrolysis using a hydrolase enzyme, (iii) nanoLC, nanoESI MS, and MS/MS analysis of the generated peptides, and (iv) protein identification using protein databank proceeded from genomic data, have been optimized for archeological remains. Briefly our procedure starts by grinding the potsherds, extraction with 1% trifluoroacetic acid, digestion with excess of trypsin, nanoLC, nanoESI FT-ICR analysis, and data mining by homology search. The developed conditions were evaluated on protein extracts from remains obtained by heated muscle tissues and blubbers of different seal and whale species, these samples representing the main diet sources of the Eskimo population. Most of the proteins were identified by sequence homology to other species due to the lack of cetacean and pinniped proteins in the databanks. More interestingly, two proteins, myoglobin and hemoglobin, respectively, identified in muscle tissue samples and blubber samples highlight several specific peptides of cetacean and pinniped species; these peptides are significant to prove the presence of these marine species in the analyzed samples. Based on the developed methodology and on protein identification results obtained from the heated seal/whale muscle tissues and blubbers, the analysis of the clay matrix of a 1200-1400 AD Iñupiat potsherd fragment from Point Barrow was investigated. The described method succeeds in identifying four peptides corresponding to the harbor seal myoglobin (species Phoca vitulina) with a measured mass accuracy better than 1 ppm (MS and MS/MS experiments) including one specific peptide of the cetacean and pinniped species and one specific peptide of the seal species. These results highlight, for the first time, a methodology able to identify proteins from a few milligrams of archeological potsherd buried for years; the obtained results confirm the presence of a seal muscle tissue protein in this Punuk potsherd.

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