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Make Some Microbe Friends

By KIM BELLARD

It’s the coolest story I’ve seen in the past few days: The New York Times reported how an Italian  museum cleaned its priceless Michelangelo sculptures with an army of bacteria.  As Jason Horowitz wrote, “restorers and scientists quietly unleashed microbes with good taste and an enormous appetite on the marbles, intentionally turning the chapel into a bacterial smorgasbord.”

And you just want to kill them all with your hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps. 

The Medici Chapel in Florence had the good fortune to be blessed with an abundance of works by Michelangelo, but the bad fortune to have had centuries of various kinds of grime building up on them.  In particular, over time the corpse of one Medici “…seeped into Michelangelo’s marble, the chapel’s experts said, creating deep stains, button-shaped deformations…”

This is, I assume, why they tell you not to touch the art.

Scientists picked a bacteria — Serratia ficaria SH7, in case you’re taking notes – that ate the undesired grime without also eating the underlying marble.   It wasn’t hazardous to humans either and didn’t create spores that might go elsewhere.  “It’s better for our health,” one of the art restorers told NYT.  “For the environment, and the works of art.”

The technique was a success, allowing the sculptures to look like they did centuries ago. 

Using such bacteria to clean art has been around for at a decade, and not just for sculptures.  Perhaps more surprising is bacteria isn’t just cleaning art, it’s also creating it; the American Society for Microbiology hosts an annual Agar Art Contest

If you’re impressed by that, researchers are teaching bacteria to read, or at least to recognize letters.  That’s not all they might learn to do.  “For example, the framework and algorithm in our study can be used to facilitate the design of living therapeutics, such as targeted drug release systems based on engineered probiotic bacteria systems,” the researchers say.   

The thing is, we not only don’t know what microbes do, or could do, but we have only a vague understanding how they surround us.  That’s starting to change.  We’ve known for some time that each of us has a unique microbiome (including mycobiome!).  What we didn’t realize until recently was that each urban area has its own microbiome as well. 

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