Bacteria get a new appearance as art restorers in Italy

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Michelangelo’s marbles in the Medici chapel looked grubby, so a team of art restorers decided to smear some bacteria on the situation. The specialized microbes cleaned up centuries of dirt, giving the marble statues a fresh new look, The New York Times reports.

The team selected specialized strains of bacteria to target different stains on the marble. Some types of bacteria can thrive in harsh environments and are adapted to eating things that can cause problems for humans. These bacteria can break down things like pollutants into relatively harmless components.

In this case, the team looked for strains of bacteria that would eat away the stains and other gunk, without damaging the marble itself, and tested their top picks on an inconspicuous slab of marble behind an altar in the chapel. They found a few strains that would work and used gel to spread them on the images. The different strains of bacteria eat away debris, glue and even the stains from an improperly discarded corpse that was dumped in one of the tombs in 1537.

The results of the project will be released in June, but you can get a small preview through the images in The New York Times article.

This is far from the first time bacteria have been squeezed into the art cleaning service. Italy, in particular, is known for putting microbes to work in conservation efforts. A sulfur-chewing bacteria was used to it remove “black crusts” from parts of Milan Cathedral, and outperformed a comparable chemical treatment. In Pisa, a strain of bacteria that eats pollutants helped clean up damaged frescoes on a cathedral dome and at a cemetery at the leaning tower.

Other researchers are mapping the bacteria and other tiny creatures already live in paintings. They found that some of the microbes that made their home on the pigments could actually help preserve them that the work of art deteriorates at all.