From Past to Present: Ancient Teeth Unveil Insights on Antibody Preservation

Dentistry Today


In a groundbreaking revelation poised to reshape our understanding of infectious diseases and human history, researchers have unveiled a remarkable discovery. Recent findings suggest that teeth could act as preservers of antibodies, maintaining their integrity over centuries and providing scientists with a unique opportunity to explore the depths of ancient infectious diseases.

ancient teeth

Antibodies, vital proteins generated by our immune system in response to pathogens like viruses and bacteria, play a pivotal role in identifying and combatting these microorganisms. These proteins serve as defenders, aiding the immune system in targeting and eliminating these invaders from the body.

The results of this study, published in iScience, shed light on an intriguing aspect of this breakthrough. Medieval human teeth, dating back approximately 800 years, have been found to contain antibodies that not only endure the test of time but also retain the ability to recognize viral proteins.

The collaborative efforts of Professor Robert Layfield and research technician Barry Shaw from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Nottingham, alongside Professor Anisur Rahman and Dr. Thomas McDonnell from the Department of Medicine at University College London, delve into the emerging field of palaeoproteomics. This area of research offers a fresh perspective on ancient proteins, potentially unveiling the historical evolution of human antibody responses.

Palaeoproteomics, already demonstrating its temporal reach, showcases the successful extraction and characterization of ancient proteins from various sources. Noteworthy examples include proteins extracted from the dental enamel of a 1.7-million-year-old rhinoceros and a more than 6.5-million-year-old ostrich eggshell. Taking a leap forward, the current study indicates that even mammoth bones dating back nearly 40,000 years harbor antibodies that have remarkably stood the test of time, paralleling the stability observed in the medieval human teeth.

The implications of this scientific breakthrough extend beyond the boundaries of biology. The University of Nottingham team, previously utilizing similar techniques to analyze proteins associated with diseases in archaeological human bones and teeth, has gained insights into historical health conditions, including a distinctive ancestral form of the skeletal disorder Paget’s disease.

Professor Layfield elaborated on the significance of the findings, stating, “In discovery science we come to expect the unexpected, but the realisation that intact, functional antibodies can be purified from skeletal remains in the archaeological record was quite astonishing. Some ancient proteins were known to be stable, but these tend to be ‘structural’ proteins such as collagens and keratins, that are pretty inert.”

Professor Rahman further emphasized the distinctive nature of antibodies, remarking, “Antibodies are different because we are able to test whether they can still do their job of recognising viruses or bacteria even after hundreds of years. In this case we found that antibodies from medieval teeth were able to recognise Epstein-Barr virus, which causes glandular fever. In future it could be possible to look at how antibodies from ancient specimens react to diseases present during those periods, such as the Black Death.”

This groundbreaking research opens a window into the past, with the potential to deepen our understanding of disease evolution and historical health challenges through the analysis of ancient antibodies preserved within dental remains.

The study, “Preservation of whole antibodies within ancient teeth,” was published August 2023 in iScience.