Trends in deamidation across archaeological bones, ceramics and dental calculus

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The accumulation of post-translational modifications (PTMs) in proteins throughout the lifecycle has been studied for decades, particularly more so with the advent of soft-ionization mass spectrometry-based proteomic techniques. However, particular PTMs, such as the deamidations of asparagine and glutamine residues, continue to accumulate in proteins that remain into the forensic, archaeological, and palaeontological records. The accurate measurement of these ancient ‘molecular timers’ has been proposed as a method to not only differentiate between exogenous and endogenous proteins within complex mixtures (i.e., contamination), but also as a method of providing relative age estimations into geological time. In this study we explored the extent to which deamidation varies with chronological age across different proteins in bones, as well as investigated differences between proteins across dental calculus and archaeological ceramics. We also analysed the relationships between the observed extent of deamidation and the protein primary structure. We found that collagen obtained from archaeological bones showed a chronological dependence on the extent of deamidation observed, but only when they were from similar environments, supporting prior suggestions about ‘thermal age’ being a major influence on the deamidation observed. Our study on non-collagenous proteins (NCPs) in archaeological bones showed that while biglycan, and to a lesser extent chondroadherin, showed positive correlations between geological age and the extent of deamidation, others including fetuin-A and serum albumin did not. However, despite the well-known dependence of deamidation on the three-dimensional structure of the peptides, we were unable to find any clear correlation between the structural motifs of the peptides in archaeological bones and the extent of deamidation observed. Our analysis of a set of food proteins obtained from Neolithic archaeological ceramics in Çatalhöyük also showed similar deamidation levels irrespective of the protein structure. Overall, our results suggest that deamidation in archaeological samples could be useful for obtaining additional information beyond identification of species and tissue type, be that as a measure of protein endogeneity and potential contamination, or a measure of protein degradation, or as an indicator of thermal age and for relative dating; however, further research needs to be undertaken to understand why particular proteins are better for this than others, going beyond simple consideration of their secondary structure.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-79
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2022

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Manchester Institute of Biotechnology


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