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Imaging technique helps to unravel mysteries of ancient human teeth

Posted on 20 February 2023

Researchers have used specialist imaging techniques to map proteins in ancient human teeth to study the preservation of proteins in archaeological remains.

A cross section of a tooth

The team from the University of York, in collaboration with Leiden University, are using Mass Spectrometry Imaging (MSI) for the first time to investigate the distribution of proteins in teeth. Until now it was unknown if MSI could be used on archaeological remains to identify proteins and where they are located through the teeth.


The study shows that there are large differences in the intensity of proteins across the inside of the teeth and the distribution of different proteins within the same tooth appears similar. It remains unclear, however, why this is the case or what this might mean for the health of the individual.

Jan Dekker, PhD student from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “The research represents the first step in understanding how proteins are distributed within teeth and add a spatial dimension to the study of proteins in archaeological remains. 

“This knowledge will improve our sampling techniques and might lead to new insights into what this pattern of protein distribution means.”


It is hoped, that in future applications, this technique could be implemented to make informed decisions on sampling strategies and the targeting of key proteins of archaeological and biological interest.

Jan said: "Improving our understanding of protein distribution in archaeological teeth can help us in several ways. Firstly, it can aid us in sampling for biomolecular analysis, by targeting the best-preserved areas of a tooth. This study shows that proteins are not evenly distributed across the teeth, but that there are hotspots where protein intensity is higher. 

“Secondly, the location of proteins in incrementally growing tissues like teeth may tell us something about the lives of the individuals during that particular time of tooth growth."

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