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Bone Reveals 55,000 Year Old Protein

Mass spectrometry has been used to identify the protein osteocalcin from a bone of an ancient Bison in Siberia. For the first time, Christina Nielsen-Marsh, of Newcastle University, and colleagues at the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and Michigan State University have managed to retrieve an intact protein from a fossil bone more than 55,000 years old.

The molecules were extracted from extinct bison remains located in the permafrost in Siberia, Russia. The protein is important in bone formation.

The protein was ionized from the sample using matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization mass spectrometry (MALDI-MS) and sequenced at Michigan State University . Remarkably, the primary sequence of the protein was recovered intact, including the relatively unstable carboxylated glutamic acid (gamma-carboxy glutamic acid) residues. The researchers demonstrate that osteocalcin can survive in bones even heated to temperatures of 165C for several hours.

"This research is groundbreaking" says Nielsen-Marsh, "because it finally puts to rest the question of whether intact proteins can exist in fossilized bones". "Moreover, intriguing data from our laboratories suggest that extending protein sequencing well beyond 55,000 years is a realistic possibility."

The results of the study appear in the December issue of the journal Geology.


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