- A flash-glassified piece of brain tissue is persuasively human, with implications for volcanobiology.
- The vitrified tissue revealed its secrets under mass spectrometry.
- The specific way this tissue turned to glass also helps scientists better understand the eruption.
Scientists have found intact brain and nerve cells inside a 2,000-year-old victim of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The remains were likely preserved by the fast and very hot manner of death, which is analyzed in a new research paper.
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The scientists explain:
“Vitrification is a natural process that occurs when a liquid drops below its glass transition temperature, which depends largely on the cooling rate and the viscosity of the liquid. The preservation of this vitrified material implies that the brain was not destroyed during exposure to the hot pyroclastic flows and that time was allowed for its rapid cooling and transformation into glass before the final burial beneath further meters of hot pyroclastic debris.”
While this sounds like a terrible time for Vesuvian Man, it’s great for science.
The paper’s title, “Preservation of neurons in an AD 79 vitrified human brain,” uses the same Latin-derived term for something turned to glass. “The perfect state of preservation of these structures is due to the unique process of vitrification which occurred at Herculaneum,” the team explains. “The discovery of proteins whose genes are expressed in the different region[s] of the human adult brain further agree with the neuronal origin of the unusual archaeological find.”
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Glass is a great storage medium. Last year, Microsoft showed it could store movies on quartz glass, for example—a move the tech titan said helped to demonstrate the long-term storage potential of glass’s particular qualities. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better proof of concept than 2,000-year-old glass that instantaneously captured someone’s brain cells in high fidelity.
If this glass brain is so special, what typically happens to brain tissue in aging human remains? This part is gross, so buckle up: “Under certain taphonomic conditions that prevent soft tissue decomposition, these brain remains are typically saponified,” the researchers explain. That means “turned to soap,” and, as you might imagine, it doesn’t result in great specimens for examination.
Glass doesn’t just age better, it also allows for advanced scientific study with tools like mass spectrometry. That means experts could ascertain exactly what was preserved in glass form. “Proteomics and mass spectrometry investigations of this material allowed us to identify several proteins of human brain origin and fatty acids of human hair fat, thus indicating preservation of vitrified human brain tissue,” the researchers explain.
Using spectrometry, the researchers identified cellular substructures and structures that let them narrow down candidate cell types until they were sure these were neurons and even spinal cord cells. They were able to identify layered myelin sheath material characteristic of neurons, for example, and other pieces in the right configuration to be human rather than any other animal.
The researchers say that this finding is a kind of Rosetta stone translator that can apply to other, less considered ancient volcanic remains.
“These results have important implications in the field of bioanthropological and volcanological research, which may open up a new line of biogeoarchaeological investigations on previously undetected evidence in the sites buried by the Vesuvius eruptions,” they explain. That could be more glassified human tissues, other animal cells, or even novelly “treated” versions of chemical elements.
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