What was the real Dracula like? Four “chemical historians” look for the answer in proteins | Culture

In his 1897 novel about the most famous vampire in history, Bram Stoker mentions blood or the color red more than 200 times, sometimes when talking about Dracula’s eyes. “The last thing I saw was the Count blowing me a kiss with his hand, with a triumphant red glow in his eyes and a smile that would have made Judas proud even in hell,” says one of the protagonists, for example. Jonathan Harker before being left alone in the Carpathian castle with the “sisters”, three vampires who expected “kisses for all”, because Harker – who fled out of loyalty to his fiancée Mina – was “young and strong”.

Did Vlad Dracula, the cruel 15th century European prince who inspired the book, have hemolacria (blood in his tears)? Or was it just a literary device by Stoker to allude to sexual desire and Eros and Thanatos in conservative Victorian England (and ultimately forced cinema’s most famous Dracula, Christopher Lee, to act in red contact lenses, which he hated? )? Two Israeli biotech entrepreneurs and an Italian biochemist are currently searching, among other things, for the answer in the proteins left by Vlad Dracula when he signed three letters half a millennium ago.

The word dragulya it can be seen in the signature of one of the documents kept by the National Archives of Romania and in the red wax seal of another. He was one of the pen names (after his father Vlad Dracul) of Vlad III, also known as The Impaler (Tepes in Romanian) for his penchant for killing the Saxons and Ottomans of Transylvania in this manner. Born in Transylvania in 1431, he ruled with an iron fist and had shifting alliances with Wallachia, a now-defunct principality in present-day Romania.

Letter signed by Vlad Dracula, one of the documents analyzed.Gleb Zilberstein

In one of the letters from 1475, shortly before his death on the battlefield, he introduces himself as “Prince of the Transalpine Regions” to tell the citizens of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu that he will settle there. By then, stories were already circulating about his brutality as commander of neighboring Wallachia, including one about how the frightened Ottomans discovered a “forest of poles.” In Romania, he is considered a national hero who defended the country from him at a difficult time when few ruled with consideration.

Three years ago, the Israelis Gleb and Svetlana Zilberstein, both 53, and the Italians Pier Giorgio Righetti, 81, and Vincenzo Cunsolo, 60, obtained permission to analyze the documents using a system designed “without damaging” the present proteins. collected by coming into contact with any part of the body, sweat, saliva or tears. Under the right conditions, they can stay there for up to millions of years. “No part of the object needs to be ripped out, and proteins are more stable than DNA, which degrades more over time,” explains Gleb Zilberstein at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv, Israel, from where he and Svetlana emigrated 26 years ago. to Kazakhstan. He has a master’s degree in physics and she has a master’s degree in economics, but they are neither classical academics nor do they have a university teaching position. Rather, as Gleb admits, they are “your typical high-tech Israeli entrepreneurs.” Righetti, for his part, is emeritus professor of chemistry at the Polytechnic University of Milan, while Cunsolo teaches organic chemistry in Catania.

Svetlana and Gleb Zilberstein, on the 14th in Tel Aviv.
Svetlana and Gleb Zilberstein, on the 14th in Tel Aviv.antonio whistles

The system consists of surface ionized plastics that are deposited on the object. absorb Proteins, other biomolecules and metals that can shed light on diseases, medicines, food and even the environment in which Dracula lived. “We work in two directions. On the one hand, biological markers that develop in the human body. On the other hand, the proteins of the microbes”, says Gleb.

They like to call it “history of chemistry.” “We are not detectives, although it can be used for forensics,” says Svetlana. The method can be used to determine if a protein came from a human, a rat or a mosquito that landed on the document. Also date. That is, to distinguish if the human proteins in the part of the letter where Vlad Dracula stamped his signature are from that time or later. There is always, yes, a point of attribution to assume that this biological marker really corresponds to Dracula, because everything seems to point to him. “It helps that the paper was made from cotton fibers back then, it holds up really well,” says Svetlana. In any case, according to preliminary test results, few hands have touched these documents since the 15th century.

Illness determines behavior

The Zilbersteins bite their tongues not to reveal their conclusions about Vlad III. They refuse to do so until it is confirmed in Italy, although they claim that two of the 10 human proteins attributed to Vlad Dracula indicate pathologies. Among those they have been looking for are atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries that can clog the veins of the retina, or conjunctivitis, which is so acute that it produces blood in the tears. “If we have information about specific diseases, we can provide material for historians to speculate about. Illnesses dictate behaviour”, emphasizes Gleb. They do not address the cause of death, as that is already known (fighting Ottoman forces) and the body was never found.

They tend to focus on famous historical or literary figures. And they are documented prior to the biological analysis to know what clues to look for and to be able to link history and chemistry. On this occasion, Dracula was chosen because “he is an ideal character to understand the political games of the time,” says Gleb. “We wanted to know who he was. A true dictator or a victim of the political-military situation? It is also interesting from a medical point of view, he adds, due to the numerous legends about its diseases and the study of climatic conditions and the bacterial universe before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America.

film frame
Still from the film “Dracula, by Bram Stoker” by Francis Ford Coppola (1992)cable press

The first joint mission of the four scientists was the original manuscript of a 20th century Roman key: The teacher and Margarita, to which Mikhail Bulgakov devoted the last years of his life. The analysis revealed biological evidence that the author, who had practiced medicine, was taking large amounts of morphine and painkillers for a kidney condition called nephrotic syndrome. In further investigation, they found traces of gold, silver, mercury and lead in a manuscript about the moon by Johannes Kepler, leading them to believe that the prominent German astronomer and mathematician combined the scientific method with alchemy, which remains popular. in Eastern Europe. set. XVII century.

“We generate data to destroy paradigms. We put them on the table and open a debate”, sums up Gleb. For example, historians have already agreed that George Orwell, the author of Rebelion on the farm Y 1984, died of tuberculosis in 1950. In 2018, after analyzing a letter he sent to Moscow, they added a conclusion: that he contracted the disease in the hospital where he was recovering from a shot during the Spanish Civil War, where Orwell was fighting on the Republican side. Russian Anton Chekhov also suffered from tuberculosis, but they believe he died of a stroke from a protein found in one of his tests.

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What was the real Dracula like? Four “chemical historians” look for the answer in proteins | Culture – Press Releases