Popular Science

The world’s art is under attack—by microbes

Bacteria and fungi are a menace to paintings, sculptures, and ancient artifacts.

Stains caused by fungal spores on Angel and Three Marys, a drawing by Louis Comfort Tiffany (the designer best known for his work in stained glass), before it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

We’re used to seeing famous works of art and historical artifacts marred by the elements. They can be eroded by wind and water, faded by sunlight, or nibbled by insects. But cultural relics can also be damaged by hordes of even tinier invaders: bacteria, fungi, and algae.

“Microorganisms are a big problem for cultural heritage,” says Franco Palla, a biotechnologist at University of Palermo in Italy. These tiny invaders have wrought catastrophic damage on historic sites like the Lascaux cave paintings in France and the Titanic—the infamous ship is being devoured by a tenacious species of metal-hungry bacteria.

That’s why scientists and conservators are working to identify what kinds of bacteria are colonizing an artifact, purge them, and make sure they cannot return. Some

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