Professor Piergiorgio Righetti, Sam Night, Silverstein discussed on All Of It
And the New York conversation. Today on fresh air, Terry gross, journalist, Robert Draper, about the obstacles Nancy Pelosi faces as she tries to reclaim her title. As speaker of the house that's the day at two on ninety three point nine FM. You're listening to all of it on WNYC. I'm Alison stared. Hope you're having a good day when we all know the value of a written word and the inherent value of old books. Manuscripts there vitally important of historical cultural literary documents. But what if that little speck addressed or dirt on these century-old pages can tell us as much about the author and the times they lived in has what is written on the page. It's all possible, thanks to new methods. That are allowing scientists to plunge into the world's great, libraries and archives and study proteins and molecules on the surface of the documents within them think about it for a minute. It's the subject of a piece that have twenty twenty-six issue of the New Yorker called hidden traces, the article's author authors New Yorker staff writer Sam night, and he joins us now via Skype. Hi sam. Hello. So we need to have some terms. So people can follow this conversation in layman's terms. What is pretty? Six. I would I would love to explains. And I'm excited to I'm just getting a lot of feedback on the line. Really sorry about this. I'm getting a lot of type hang on the line. Sorry. I think on the line who is. There's somebody here this better that's much much better. That sounds like I'm just starting to Helen. I apologies. Hello. So proteomics. Yes. Explaining it. Just seems simple terms. Yes. Please. Yeah. So I guess most people would have heard the phrase genomics, which is which is the way that we think about studying the human genome, which is made up of twenty two thousand genes and an proteome IX sort of derives from that genomics is the study of the activity of our genes than approach is the study of all the proteins that are created by those genes. So it kind of simple way of thinking about it is that if you got twenty two thousand genes in the genome, you might have hundreds and hundreds of millions of proteins even billions of proteins and a single cell. So it's a bit like the kind of a kind of atlas of biological activity inside a cell. It's an unbelievably ambitious field as a scientific research mainly around drug testing and kind of big heavy duty biotech sort of developments. Not something you'd associate with with with libraries and archives. So why field of proteomics of interest to people who study things like history and literature and manage? Scripts. So it's it's really interesting actually, the first kind of proteome IQ testing, the sort of testing of proteins on old paintings documents with something like that goes back about twenty years, and it really was from sort of self starting chemists, and and biotech people who who loved loved paintings in literature, and some of them just started basically taking tiny scrapings of paintings and putting them into to mass spectrometers, which is kind of big heavy duty piece of technology in laboratories, so it started off almost as a kind of dabbling by by scientists. But over time they've refined their methods. And now, they're realizing that you can just take tiny tiny scraps of pro teams that in some cases, a millions of years old and announced sort of examining them in the same way that you'd examine I dunno a brain protein or blood plasma now and to see the kind of details that you can you can you can find from them. What are some of the specific things that proteins can tell us about the past. So he's a really nice example of about ten years ago group of French scientists looked at some poetry remnants from an Inuit site in northern Alaska that we're back kind of six eight hundred years old, and they could find a meal could find the traces of of harbor seal on a tiny tiny fragment of of poetry from six to eight hundred years ago. So you're suddenly seeing the kind of the diets, and and you can really zoom in on those you can see what the people were talking to scientists the other day who looked at little vessels for holding milked you'd feed a baby, you know, it's a six month old baby. In Roman times. And they could tell the milk could been warmed. If you see what I mean because you can see how the proteins have sort of the haved on that piece of poetry from two thousand years ago as you write in your piece right protein from the past are the biological remnants of a specific incident, a separate a seal an ailing mammoth, describing you wrote that I thought about it's almost like a snapshot of that moment, exactly an-, and this is this really nice kind of almost accidental aligning of of science and the study of history and trying to capture a moment because one of the interesting things about proteins that different when we're asleep, the different one where hungry the different when we're fighting an infection that when we've got a disease said, they are dynamic, they changed throughout the course of the day. Therefore, that's obviously fascinating to scientists trying to figure out human illnesses and human behavior now. But it also suddenly corresponds to the post, you know, something that. You know, someone like check who suffered from tuberculosis his manuscript at the beginning of his life. A gonna have different proteins on them from the end of his life can you'll you'll see the different kinds of health conditions that he had over time documenting chronicle what was going on in an individual's life. Yeah. Exactly. We're speaking with Sam night. He's a staff writer at the New Yorker, the name of his article hidden, traces how historical manuscripts are giving up their secrets before we go for how did you find this topic? How'd you? Tell me about it. I I actually I've I've read I've read a posting about this thing called of fat burger, which is this disgusting thing that we have in in the in the suicide in London, and I got I got an Email from the guys one of the main characters in the article who's called club Silverstein. He's kind of dynamic almost kind of hustler of scientists in a way, and he brought me this Email in not great English, cold historians, not from fat bug, and I sort of had this Email in my inbox this so rarely happens. And I just kind of ignored it for a few days. And then I sort of to see my slightly chaotic English, but the bottom was this paper, which is one of the ones I described in the article, which was about the records of a plague hit Milan in sixteen thirty much Glen and his his partner. Professor Piergiorgio Righetti of the university of Milan had gone in and looked at these plague records from sixteen thirty and found the. You know what? I mean, they've found the plague on the papers also found chickpea maize and carrots, they found the diet of the clocks. He wrote down his death records found mouse, proteins and wrap routines. They found anthrax six hundred whole families have sort of biological material on these four hundred Gerald in cotton papers. And that soon as I read that I needed to know more. Let's talk more about Righetti and Silverstein. Let's start with Righetti. Who is he why is he so important in this field of proteomics? So he has one of those scientific fields. You know, you can talk to people now who have been there since since the very beginning. He started out trying to Matt Mays proteins in one thousand nine hundred seventy one with early computers and software, and you know, they've seen the field completely transformed as time so Righetti is now he's in late seventies. During the ninety s he kind of pioneered a bunch of kind of key laboratory methods for how you sort molecules in the in the kind of testing environment. He studied wine and beer, Don, kind of quit sort of industrial applications of of proteome ex, but he's always had this abiding interest in kind of history and literature. His dad was a poet and a schoolteacher. So he's kind of always been being sort of opened other applications. And his partner in crime. He following this. And he's a he's a collaborator of his Righetti called cinema genius. He's kind of a little more interesting. Interesting in the way that he's not a traditional scientists. Let's say, yeah. I think I think he's also, you know, he's also an entrepreneur he's an inventor really do. You know what I mean? You don't come across that many people who've Oakley described themselves as as inventors so he's kind of always he's always sort of thinking of new things and the two of them collaborated for number of years in different biotech, start-ups and. Righetti was approached. I think almost as a favor about about ten years ago to look at a thirteenth century bible was being restored in the library in Florence. And they asked him. How can you can use proteome canals to tell us something new about this bible, and and Zuber Stein, who's consumer sort of scientific literature. Read this paper on the day that it came out and had a thought for how to apply some new sort of techniques that he was developing in Israel to artworks. And then so so yeah for the last six or eight years that the two men of being collaborating on on refining a message to extract proteins from old manuscripts without without damaging, which is damaging them, which is obviously one of the big concerns of curator's. I am curious about how they work together. Given how different they were are. Yeah. I mean, I think hung. Hang out with them both on. It's definitely. Kind of a a mentor mentor relationship, you know, club is in his late forties. Rieti he's in his late seventies. That's huge respects between the two of them. One is the kind of the younger Tiro and the other one is is the guy with the sodas all the sort of the academic credentials and kind of real sort of distinguished standing in the field. We're speaking with Sam night a staff writer at the New Yorker about his piece in the November twenty six issue. It's called hidden traces. And we're looking at we're talking about the ability find proteins on old books and manuscripts. And what that can tell us here in the states, the full Shakespeare library in DC conducted a research experiment. They called this is funny project dust bunny. I know. I know. I don't know how grateful they gonna be. But they did they did this experiment back in two thousand fifteen where they they ran a swap down the gutter which is the kind of the central part of a of a seventeenth century bible. They had to kind of fluff and crowd that kind of assembles there a over the years, and and they send it through tree. And it had it had to DNA of a kind of a northern European individual who had a skin problem. Suddenly, you're bringing to life the possible owner, you know, of of of that book countries of years ago. So you mentioned this you touched on this earlier, one of the big issues with this is you have to physically touch, the manuscripts and books and papers, and that's causing some tension. Can you describe what that is like for these scientists and researchers and how people have received them when they say, hey, can I touch your centuries-old old bible swab? Look, I think this is this this is this is a field not quite in its in its infancy. But I I sense. And I hope that it's about to kind of break out and become kind of standardized over the next five to ten years. I think if you're if you're looking after genuinely priceless manuscripts, you you were getting Silverstein a desperate to test Mozart's last requiem, for example, was he poisoned by Sally area. You know, they've got a kind of a nose sort of sensational sort of historical stories that they want to sort of bought him out. But if you're holding onto that that that literally priceless manuscript you have. To sort of ask yourself. Hey, which we just wait until these techniques have settled down a little bit. And there's a standardized way of doing this until until recently the only way to conduct this kind of analysis has been to sacrifice parts of the object. And even when you ask for ten to fifteen micrograms, which is tiny tiny tiny pinhead, if you're a curator a conservative if you say, yes. So you kind of just start saying yesterday in the things that have disappeared before your eyes. See, so I think I think there is sort of genuine and well well placed caution about about how this field is going to is going to get in your piece, you write Righetti told the librarian that he was keen to study the Torah. I asked him could I take a tiny bit he recalled that was the end of the conversation. Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. I think everyone's going on there. Everyone's going on their own journey with this. I think more, you know, blue chip collections and institutions that take part in protocols for this. You know, the the met is kind of go to proteome mix projects that they're working on Harvard. Museums have has gotten fold. Networking with the national library in France know, I think as as more and more institutions take part and see it with their own eyes. They will gain they will gain trust Silverstein himself in a little bit of trouble when he analyzed the notebooks of Johann Kepler seventeenth century astronomer. What did he find? And why is it controversial? So so this this was really fascinating. I was lucky enough to go with them to to some Petersburg where the archives and men's script sales of guns captured this really extraordinary seventeenth century storm at all or caps, and they tested the pages. And they found they had much higher than expected concentrations of gold, and arsenic, and silver and let these heavy metals over all the pages and that kind of collection of metals for scientists and. At that time immediately spells alchemy, and and our chemical experiments, and that's obviously. You know, an interesting thing, and but Kepler unusually is not known to have taken part in in alchemy experiments at that time claiming that one of the great figures in in science had had another side to his to his work would be would be a big discovery. And it's the first time that their their work has gone against the grain if you like traditional scholarship, I think the best use list super exciting use of this of these techniques. So far has been to sort of double checks things that we thought would a case. Do you see what I mean? So one of the ways. Yeah. For your information. Yeah..