The ‘Godfather’ of bioarchaeology is moving to Denmark
Professor Matthew Collins is one of the world’s leading experts in ancient proteins and what they can tell us about the Earth’s past.
One of the world’s leading researchers in ancient proteins and bioarchaeology, Professor Matthew Collins, has taken up a five year post at the Center for Geogenetics, part of the Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Professor Tom Gilbert from the Center for Geogenetics, says that Denmark will be hosting “one of the Godfathers” in bioarchaeology, and that the move will strengthen Denmark’s position as a leader in the research field.
“Matthew Collins performs ground-breaking work. He was famous back when I was a Ph.D. student. He is a serial developer and has contact with everyone in this field, so he’s going to help us build the world’s leading proteomics centre for exploration of ancient proteins,” says Gilbert, who will be Collins’ host professor in Denmark.
Collins has received the National Research Foundation Niels Bohr professorship, which comes with 31 million Danish kroner (EUR4.17m) to support his research. The funding will run for five years, but Collins already hopes to extend his stay.
Colleagues around the world are expecting big things from the collaboration.
“It’s an exciting move for Copenhagen and for research in general. Mattthew Collins is easily the leading researcher in the field of archaeological science,” says Professor Mike Richards from the Institute of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University, Canada, who describes the move as good news for Danish science.
A scientist inspired by Jaws
Collins moves from the University of York in the United Kingdom, where he founded the BioArCh research group in 2003—an interdisciplinary group of archaeologists, biologists, and chemists, whose aim was to use biomolecules to answer archaeological questions.
Niels Bohr Professorships
This article is the first in a series of portraits of awardees of the Niels Bohr professorship, supported by the Danish National Research Foundation.
The Niels Bohr program aims to attract top scientists from abroad to enrich Danish research.
Matthew Collins has been granted 31 million Danish kroner for five years, in connection with the Niels Bohr professorship.
Originally a marine zoologist and geologist, Collins has always been interested in what ancient molecules could tell us about Earth’s past.
“My inspiration actually came from the movie Jaws. I wanted to study biomolecules in fossils,” says Collins.
But over the past 20 years, it has been ancient proteins that have particularly caught his attention. And today, most scientists studying these proteins have at some point been a PhD student of Collins’.
Collins’ past collaborations in Denmark are numerous, including a project with Professor Eske Willerslev, director of the Center for Geogenetics, in which he studied biological material in ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet.
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Proteins cast light on Neanderthals in the UK
One of the projects that Collins is most proud of was a study that used proteins to reconstruct human history in the UK.
They discovered that 125,000 years ago, when the planet was in between ice ages and the British Isles were ice-free, there were no Neanderthals living anywhere in the UK.
“It had previously been suggested, but for the first time we could confirm it across many archaeological sites. There were rhinos and horses, but no Neanderthals. In all other warm periods, people lived in the UK, just not during this period. It was an interesting discovery,” says Collins.
Milk proteins cast light on Stone Age diets
Collins has also used proteins to discover whether Stone Age people drank milk, by studying 5,000 year-old proteins preserved inside Stone Age milk pots.
He discovered that they drank both sheep and cow’s milk.
“It was a surprising find, since people shouldn’t have been able to drink cow’s milk then. A mutation in our genome means that we can drink milk today, and this mutation hadn’t occurred 5,000 years ago,” says Collins.
“We still don’t fully understand how they were able to do this, but we see evidence that they did,” he says.
By examining proteins in dental plaque, he was able to establish the types of meat people ate and whether Stone Age people were eating their daily fruit and vegetables. He could also see what type of bacteria lived in their mouths.
Protein research in Denmark
Collins now plans to lay the foundations for understanding how proteins survive over such long periods and discover how we can use proteins to tell us more about the Earth’s history.
The potential of proteins could outshine the existing applications of ancient DNA.
“You often finds proteins from extinct animals for which there is no longer any DNA left. But instead of making small projects here and there, Collins will lay the research and conceptual foundation for how to use proteins and for what,” says Gilbert.
The oldest preserved DNA sequence is from a horse genome, published by scientists at the Center for Geogenetics. The world’s oldest known protein sequence comes from a 3.8 million year-old eggshell.
“I think we can go even further back in time, maybe more than 40 million years. DNA cannot survive that long, so if we want to get an insight into organisms that lived at that time, then proteins can provide us with a window into the past that DNA cannot,” says Collins.
Can also study arrowheads and Viking textiles
Collins will also continue an on-going collaboration with the Centre for Textile Research, the Saxo Institute, the National Museum, and the Danish Royal Library to identify the natural binding agents used in paints by ancient artists.
He will also refine techniques used to identify species of ancient biological materials, such as teeth, bones, and leathers, which will provide insights into the types of animals that ancient people hunted and used to produce arrowheads and costumes.
“We could investigate Viking leather,” says Gilbert. “Finding out what type of animal was used can tell us something about the Vikings’ way of life. If it’s a walrus skin for example, you can conclude that the Vikings were hunting in Greenland. This is the kind of question that we can start to answer with Collins’ research.”
Read the Danish version of this story on Videnskab.dk
Translated by: Catherine Jex