Main content area

The Silk Road, Marco Polo, a bible and its proteome: A detective story

Toniolo, Lucia, D'Amato, Alfonsina, Saccenti, Riccardo, Gulotta, Davide, Righetti, Pier Giorgio
Journal of proteomics 2012 v.75 no.11 pp. 3365-3373
cattle, foil, mass spectrometry, proteins, proteome, silk, China, Italy
Around the end of XIII century (at the time of young Marco Polo's first trip to China at the court of Khubilai Khan in Khan Baliq) a pocket Bible was delivered by a Franciscan friar to the Mogul Emperor, in the framework of the evangelization program of the Far East. Four centuries later, in 1685, this Bible was rediscovered by the Jesuit Philippe Couplet in the house of a rich Chinese in Nanchin and donated to Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany. This Bible was recently “unearthed” in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, wrapped up in a precious yellow silk cloth, in a rather ruined state. After two years of restoration, the Bible will return to China in 2012 for a celebration of its >700years of life and of its remarkable return trip on the Silk Road. On account of the thinness of the parchment (barely 80μm thickness, the size of each foil being 16.5×11cm) it was widely held that the pages were produced from foetal lambskins. On tiny fragments of the margins of a foil, after several unsuccessful attempts at digesting the vellum, we were able to obtain a tryptic peptide mixture, which, upon mass spectrometry analysis, yielded the identity of 8 unique proteins, belonging to the genus Bos taurus, thus confirming the origin of the vellum from calfskins rather than from foetal lambskins. Our results prove that it is possible to obtain reliable protein extraction and IDs from ancient parchment documents.