Masterclass Report VIII: Proteomics
This masterclass was delivered by Dr Samantha Presslee (University of York).
In conversation with palaeoproteomics specialist Sam Presslee, attendees of Microscopic Records’ eighth masterclass discovered multiple ways that proteomics—the scientific identification of peptide protein sequences—can be used in research of paper, parchment, fabric and ceramic sources. The masterclass thus provided a fantastic opportunity for an inspiring conversation with a specialist in this growing field for all those interested in incorporating proteomics in their research, yet again fostering links among scholars with various disciplinary backgrounds. Our discussions showed that early modern historians are in a unique position to spearhead the creative use of proteomics in historical research practices because of their varied material interests. Future collaborative projects could be enriched by similar moments of sharing expertise between scientists and historians.
The masterclass built upon numerous publications of proteomics research which Presslee shared with the attendees as well as the earlier interview between Dr Stefan Hanß and Prof John McNeill on the importance of collaboration between historians and scientists. This relatively new branch of zooarchaeology has already been employed with great success by Alfonsina D’Amato and colleagues in their investigation into death registries pertaining to the 1630 plague epidemic in Milano. Through non-invasive sampling of these paper records, they were able to uncover new insights into the everyday life of Milan’s lazaretto. For example, the presence of potato, corn, rice, carrot and chickpea proteins on some folios are likely evidence of the scribes’ last meals. Whereas, given that animals were unlikely to have been consumed in the lazaretto, the presence of sheep protein can be only be understood by the use of sheep and goats in nursing orphan children whose mothers had died of the plague.1
Clearly, there is a huge potential for this innovative scientific method to reveal new information about materials from the early modern period. In this masterclass, early career researchers got the chance to ask Dr Presslee how proteomics can help answering historical questions related to residues on a variety of historical materials. Proteomics has the potential to uncover artisanal practices within kitchens and other epistemic spaces in the early modern home, as was discussed, and future studies will undoubtedly contribute to current understandings of artisanal expertise and reveal similarities between practices in laboratories, workshops, and kitchens.
The core remaining challenge for proteomics is the limited databases of samples for comparison. So long as the types of vegetative, animal, and bacterial proteins included within this database continues to expand, proteomics will have wide application within the humanities. Our conversation stressed that historical context is key for an informed selection of microscopic samples for proteomics analysis, thus highlighting the importance of building collaborative projects and sharing expertise in future research projects. The session ended with an exciting discussion of how historians, and historians of early modern material culture in particular, are well placed to embrace the proteomics methods and explore new avenues of research in collaboration with scientists. Further conversations between proteomics experts and historians will help create a more comprehensive and research-led database thus resolving the primary challenge remaining for this method to have wider resonance within historical research.
1 Alfonsina D’Amatoa, Gleb Zilbersteinb, Svetlana Zilbersteinb, Benedetto Luigi Compagnonic, Pier Giorgio Righetti, ‘Of Mice and Men: Traces of Life in the Death Registries of the 1630 Plague in Milano’, Journal of Proteomics 180 (2018), 128-137.
Abigail Greenall, The University of Manchester.
Vendy Hoppe, The University of Manchester.