The Michelangelo marbles in the Medici Chapel looked drab, so a team of art restorers decided to smear bacteria on the situation. Specialized microbes have cleaned up centuries of grime, leaving marble statues with a fresh new look, Le New York Times reports.
The team selected specialized strains of bacteria to target different stains on marble. Certain types of bacteria can thrive in harsh environments and are suitable for 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 bacterial strains that would eat away at stains and other grime, without damaging the marble itself, and tested their top picks on an inconspicuous marble slab behind an altar in the chapel. They found a few types that would work and used gel to smear them on the statues. The different strains of bacteria have eaten away the residue, glue and even the stains of a poorly disposed of corpse that was dumped in one of the graves in 1537.
The results of the project will be published in June, but you can get a small preview by browsing the images in Le New York Times article.
This is far from the first time bacteria have been squeezed into an artistic cleaning service. Italy, in particular, is known to use microbes for conservation efforts. A sulfur-eating bacteria has been used to remove “black scabs” from parts of Milan Cathedral and has performed much better than a comparable chemical treatment. In Pisa, a strain of bacteria that feeds on pollutants helped clean up damaged frescoes on a cathedral dome and in a cemetery near the Leaning Tower.
Other researchers are mapping bacteria and other tiny beings that already live on paintings. They found that certain microbes that made their home in pigments could actually help prevent artwork from deteriorating in the first place.