Web Zap*Germs Archive

June 07, 2005

Degas' Wax Sculptures a Hit - With Microbes

In the late 1800s, Edgar Degas created wax-sculpture versions of his paintings of ballerinas, bathers and race horses. Intended primarily for his own education and enjoyment, the sculptures are now carefully preserved under glass in museums worldwide, (together with bronze casts of the wax originals).

Microbiologists from Harvard have found that such careful preservation is helping bacteria and fungi to gnaw away at the fats and other materials contained in the wax itself.
"Clearly the microbes are not doing too much damage because the objects have been around since 1880," said Barbara Berrie, a conservation scientist at the National Gallery of Art [in Washington]. "But now we're concerned that they're in a stable, quiet environment and some of the bacteria and fungi will find it a nice place to grow."

To test for microbial infection, [Kristen] Bearce and [Ralph] Mitchell swabbed the statues [in the NGA collection] and then cultured the samples. They found over half of the bacteria cultured from the swabs produced enzymes that could break down wax, almost 60 percent produced enzymes that can digest starch, and some 24 percent had the ability to digest both starch and wax.


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