by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

People have worried about the effects of fungi and other microorganisms on cultural objects almost as long as there have been cultural objects to worry about. In fact, the entire science of microbiology began with a fungus damaging a cultural object. In his 1665 book Micrographia the British polymath Robert Hooke included his sketch of what looked like a flower garden on spindly stalks. It was the first known depiction of a microbe, showing the reproductive structures of a fungus from “a small spot of a hairy mould” found on the leather cover of a book.

And yet modern microbiology has played surprisingly little role in efforts to conserve some of humanity’s most precious cultural objects: the easel paintings, typically oil on canvas, that adorn the walls of great museums everywhere. A new study published Wednesday in PLOS ONEaims to change that—and proposes using microbes themselves to prevent microbial damage.

A team from the University of Ferrara in Italy examined a 500-year-old painting called “Coronation of the Virgin Mary” (pictured above), by the early Baroque artist Carlo Bononi. This circular work, nine feet in diameter, had been painted on canvas and then applied directly to the ceiling of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ferrara’s Vado neighborhood. It was Bononi’s masterpiece, and earned him praise for having “mixed his colors with a liquid heart.” But a 2012 earthquake Read the rest of this entry »