Thursday, May 14, 2009

The three-dimensional structure of vault particles unveils the secret of the Lady of Elche

Nuria Delajara, Lydia Vilanova and José Conrado
Finca El Palmeral, Elche, Spain

The Lady of Elche is one of the major treasures of pre-Roman figurative Iberian art. Both, religious and pagan influences seem to be fundamental in the design and elaboration of the sculpture, which is considered by many as a funerary bust. The unquestioned modern beauty of the lady, and her enigmatic gesture, have been the subject of controversial interpretations by art historians, including hesitations about the authenticity of the sculpture, as well as about the sex of the represented figure (see, for instance, El Garrofer). Although Hellenic influences seem to delineate the artistic style of the bust, the aesthetic fundaments of the Lady of Elche remain obscure, specially in those matters concerning the unique design of the two ornamental, cartwheel-like discs that decorate the lady´s head. Vaults are large ribonucleprotein particles present at multiple locations in all eukaryotic cells. Electron microscopy has revealed a barrel-shaped structure for individual vaults, and it has been postulated a matruska-like, open-and-close hollow architecture for these particles. However, both the secretive content of the vaults and the function of these particles in the cell are mysterious. We have recently developed a friendly-use OJIMETRIXTM virtual package, that provides all the tools required to analyze in one sight complex biological and artistic structures. Using OJIMETRIXTM, we have performed a visual study of vaults in crystalline state, in comparison with the decorative discs that adorn the head of the Lady of Elche. We have found a strong similarity between the shape of the vaults, when visualized from an apical view, and that of the ornamental discs from Lady of Elche´s head:

In spite of differences in size of several orders of magnitude, the delicate engraving of the lateral ornaments of the bust overlaps quite well with the highly-organized molecular structure of the vaults. Our findings demonstrate that the design of the Lady of Elche´s headdress adornments possesses vault particle-like features, and suggest that ancient Iberians had precise knowledge of the shape, and perhaps the function and the content, of primitive vaults. The conservation along centuries of a vault-shaped women hairdo in some fire-related tribal rituals in modern Iberia, such as Fallas, at the Spanish Levant region, support the hypothesis that the Lady of Elche was used as a funerary urn to preserve the ashes of the dead. Whether vaults could also play a role as molecular coffins, confining cellular bodies or other unknown corps generated during programmed cell death, deserves further studies.

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