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Palaeoproteomics at Cambridge

last modified Jan 03, 2019 09:19 AM
In conversation with Matthew Collins, McDonald Professor of Palaeoproteomics


Welcome to the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge. What can you tell us about the fascinating world of palaeoproteomics?

Proteomics is a relatively easy term to explain, whereas palaeoproteomics is slightly more complicated. Proteomics is the study of all the proteins produced and expressed by the genome. What we’ve learned is that there are very few genes, but those genes have cleverly spliced to make a range of different proteins and then those proteins themselves undergo further transformation.

When we start to look at the proteome it starts to get more and more complicated. The proteome is telling us about what a cell is doing or, in our case, what kind of tissues we’re dealing with. The idea of palaeoproteomics is to take the ideas and technologies from modern proteomics and apply them to archaeological questions. 

For instance, take a Roman amphora.  Evidence in the DNA inside the amphora can tell you that you had tuna and sardines. If you analyse the proteome and you saw in the sardines all of the proteins of the animal, but in the tuna only proteins associated with body fluids and the gut that would tell you that a whole fish was used in the case of the sardines, but only the gut contents in the larger animal.


Why Cambridge?

I’ve always said that the only UK university I’d ever move to was Cambridge. There are many reasons for that, but mainly because there are a lot of staff here that I’m excited to be working with. For instance, I’ve been in talks with Tamsin O’Connell for quite a long time. I admire the way she uses stable isotopes, getting to the heart of how we get those numbers, how metabolism works.

I’m also interested in several of James Barrett’s projects, both his work on cod as well as his more recent work on ivory, which uses a combination of different approaches – biomolecular, isotopic and cultural evidence - to look at the movement of materials around medieval Europe.   

I also want to collaborate with members of the Duckworth laboratory, colleagues at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, the TwoRains project... The list goes on, and that’s part of the excitement of being here at Cambridge!  


What are you working on now?

We’ve just been awarded a large ERC Advanced grant looking at medieval parchment. We’ve been collaborating with libraries all over the world, but our greatest collaborations are with the University Library and the college libraries at Cambridge. To date, we’ve analysed in excess of 5,000 parchment documents.  

But, in actual fact, I’m only part time at Cambridge. The rest of my time is at the University of Copenhagen and I’m very excited about the idea of trying to build some summer studentship projects taking Cambridge students over to Copenhagen to start working with the labs there. I can really see the potential for synergy between the two institutions.

I’m also keen to develop the combination of studying inorganic material culture working alongside organic signals. As I mentioned earlier, in thinking about proteins binding to ceramics, we can identify not only bulk signals, but break it down even smaller into blood and milk proteins, plant tissues etc. We can then begin to think about the ways of analysing how those proteins have been degraded in terms of how those products have been produced, cooked and prepared. Combining the ideas of tissue-specific and process-specific protein signals with ceramic typology is really exciting.   


As a trained marine zoologist, how did you end up in archaeology?

True, my original degree is in marine zoology which came from an interest in studying sharks and wanting to be the expert-Richard-Dreyfuss-character in the movie Jaws. But, I was always the nerdy scared guy, so the suggestion to study fossil sharks (they’re less likely to bite you) really appealed. I realised that the biochemical tools I was learning to use were difficult to apply to fossilised samples, but relatively easy to apply to archaeological samples.

I spent ten years in a geochemistry institute trying to do archaeology, but I realised that I ultimately needed to be working with archaeologists on a daily basis to really get to grips with their needs. My research profile reflects that. I was mainly focused on quite niche methodology early on; when I joined an archaeology department my work switched to cost-effective, fast ways of identifying sheep from goats. That difference really reflects the demand of the archaeologists to turn the science we can do into a useful product.

I have a very strange route in to the subject. One of my biggest frustrations now is that I didn’t know that archaeology was a subject you could study at university and it saddens me that this is still an issue for what is such an incredibly interesting subject.   


What advice would you give future students who are considering a degree in archaeology?

My advice would be to take archaeology seriously as a degree subject. I now realise that I’m actually an applied scientist. Many people who go into science want to apply their science to big problems. Science and archaeology give you the opportunity to apply your research to really challenging questions. It’s no surprise to see how far our research has gone – forensics, US military, local authorities - because if the technology we’ve developed can work in archaeology it can work in many other ways.

Sadly, I think that most people who are considering a degree in biochemistry, for example, would consider archaeology not at all relevant to them and yet archaeology allows you to learn challenging methods by answering utterly fascinating questions about our past. I really would challenge anyone to come up with a subject with more remarkable and intriguing questions than the ones we address in archaeology.

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