You are what you eat.
This popular maxim can trace its origin back to 1826, when Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante (Physiology of Gout, or Meditations of Transcendent Gastronomy): “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es (Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are).” However, a new discovery in the field of paleoproteomics – using mass spectrometry to study ancient proteomes – shows that science can now go back at least 1.9 million years to determine what you are by what you ate. “What you are” in this case is the largest ape to ever walk – upright or otherwise – on Earth and what they ate has linked them directly to a creature that still roams the Earth. Humans? Apes? Bigfoot?
“We retrieved dental enamel proteome sequences from a 1.9-million-year-old G. blacki molar found in Chuifeng Cave, China. The thermal age of these protein sequences is approximately five times greater than that of any previously published mammalian proteome or genome, the oldest specimen yet to yield ancient proteins.”
“G. blacki” is Gigantopithecus blacki, the giant (up to 3 m (9.8 ft) tall, weighing up to 540–600 kg (1,190–1,320 lb) extinct ape that inhabited the densely forested tropical environments of Southeast Asia during the Pleistocene epoch (2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago). In a new study published in the journal Nature, Dr. Frido Welker, an ancient biomolecules expert (the biomolecules are ancient, not Frido) at Denmark’s University of Copenhagen, points out that previous methods of testing ancient proteins requires ancient DNA which unfortunately hasn’t survived more than 700,000 years in cold regions and barely longer than a few thousand years in moist tropical and subtropical areas. He didn’t have much hope in getting any from a 1.9 million-year-old jaw fragments and teeth found in Chuifeng Cave in southern China in 1935 … until he teamed up with Jesper Velgaard Olsen, Professor at Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, and Enrico Cappellini from the Evolutionary Genomics Section at the University of Copenhagen.
‘By sequencing proteins retrieved from dental enamel about two million years old, we showed it is possible to confidently reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of animal species that went extinct too far away in time for their DNA to survive till now.”
According to Cappellini, the researchers used mass spectrometry to identify more than 500 peptides that matched six proteins. They then compared the amino acids to those in the same six proteins in modern apes. And now … the big reveal:
“We demonstrate that Gigantopithecus is a sister clade to orangutans (genus Pongo) with a common ancestor about 12–10 million years ago, implying that the divergence of Gigantopithecus from Pongo forms part of the Miocene radiation of great apes.”
So, a little bit of Gigantopithecus blacki is still with us in orangutans. While the teeth and jaw fossils are 1.9 million years old, there is evidence that G. blacki didn’t go extinct until 100,000 years ago, allowing it to possibly cross paths with Homo erectus. There is also speculation that G. blacki never went extinct and a few may live on in remote areas as … you guessed it … Bigfoot. If only we had a Bigfoot tooth to study.
Of course, researchers like Cappellini are more concerned about the still-unsolved lineage and travels of our human ancestors. This ability to identify proteins in 2-million-year-old fossils from a hot climate means it’s possible to extract them from even older fossils from colder climates.
Time for a new maxim:
You are what you eat … and you will be what you ate.