“The Union shall offer its citizens an area of freedom, security and justice [...]. [The Union] shall promote scientific and technological advance.” Article 3 of the Treaty of Lisbon
Observation and explanation of phenomena occurring, or occurred, in the natural world defines the empirical method of knowledge acquisition the European Union declares to promote in Article 3 of the Treaty of Lisbon. The application of the scientific approach to biology reached a major milestone when C. Darwin (1809-1882) and A. R. Wallace (1823-1913) proposed, in the mid-19th century, the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection. Soon after, T. H. Huxley (1825-1875) applied Darwin’s ideas to humans, using palaeontology and comparative anatomy to provide strong evidence that humans and apes shared a common ancestry.
Since then, palaeoanthropology has been constantly enriching our knowledge about:
the evolutionary and genetic, i.e. phylogenetic, relations between ours and other extinct and extant hominid species
the material culture human intellect produced.
Although the adoption of experimental methods has always been at the core of palaeoanthropological research, genetics can arguably be considered the single approach that, in the last decades, provided the most innovative and impressive results. Specifically, high-throughput ancient DNA (aDNA) sequencing has been central to dramatically advancing our understanding of human evolution, migration, and admixture after the divergence of modern humans from archaic ones, as well as the evolutionary consequences of their encounters in the Late Pleistocene.
However, no aDNA data have so far been recovered from any biological species that became extinct earlier than ~0.4 and ~0.7 million years ago (Ma) from temperate deposits and subpolar regions, respectively. In contrast, ancient proteins represent a more durable source of genetic information, recently reported to survive up to ~1.77 and 3.8 million years (Ma), in dental enamel and eggshells respectively.
Their sequences can be reliably used to confidently reconstruct the evolutionary relationships between extant and extinct species. Moreover, ancient protein residues can also be recovered from cultural heritage objects produced using materials of biological origin.
In the last few years, the introduction of confident ancient protein residue sequencing by high-throughput, high resolution tandem mass spectrometry (MS), i.e. palaeoproteomics, led to discoveries published in high-impact journals, profiled in scientific feature pieces and extensively covered by mass and social media.
Ultimately, palaeoproteomics can push molecular-based evolutionary reconstructions much further back in time then aDNA analysis.
At the moment, the almost complete lack of training in palaeoproteomics is one of the factors negatively affecting the growth potential of this experimental approach. Ultimately, palaeoproteomics still lacks, across Europe, a critical mass of researchers trained through a coherent curriculum to analyse ancient and degraded proteins for palaeoanthropology, palaeontology and archaeology. The PUSHH network brings together 10 beneficiaries, from academic and private sector, each with complementary expertise to deliver an integrated, flexible training package that will provide a sound basis for academic independence and preparation for vocations in analytical chemistry, biochemistry, proteomics, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology, archaeology and beyond.
The PUSHH objectives are:
To develop a strategic, powerful training platform to equip the next generation of palaeoanthropologists, palaeontologists and archaeologists with the skills to exploit the latest biomolecular technologies and significantly advance Europe’s standing in an area in which we are regarded as world-leading scholars.
To develop a community of scientists communicating confidently with each other about advanced concepts across highly specialised disciplines from both humanities and experimental sciences, as well as interacting effectively with other stakeholders in the field they are part of, such as private companies, policy makers and the interested public.
To train a cohort of versatile researchers who are able to establish collaborative trans-sectorial initiatives on different research disciplines with a common intent in line with EU main policies.
To grow a generation of researchers who can have an impact on establishing common policy, scientific and ethical standards and protocols to the analysis of our shared European and World heritage.
To generate research that will establish innovative analytical methods, leading to the development of new products and services for the study and protection of World biological and cultural heritage materials.
Through the creation of a coherent and powerful training environment, and by empowering interdisciplinary knowledge, as well as specific research-related and transferable skills, PUSHH will scaffold future ESRs’ professional thinking. The mind-set (or “forma mentis”) the PUSHH alumni will have acquired during their early-stage training experience will strongly affect all their future professional practising.
Photo of Charles Robert Darwin: Julia Margaret Cameron / Public domain
Photo of Thomas Huxley: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)