Scientists pioneer biotech techniques to halt infestation of history, art treasures in tropics

10/27/04

UN University program in Venezuela – BIOLAC – co-hosts first symposium on preserving cultural heritage by applying ‘state-of-the-art’ science

The use of biotechnologies originally intended to remedy crop infestations and other problems is being pioneered in the protection of priceless art and historical archives in tropical countries from decay caused by insects, heat, humidity and other natural causes.

A specialized UN University program in Venezuela, UNU-BIOLAC, is leading the way in the application of biotech techniques to extend the life of some of the world's most important cultural heritage.

Art preservation protocols and strategies have largely been devised in northern countries with temperate weather. But the climate of the tropics and sub-tropics presents different, more complex challenges, including a huge variety of insects, bacteria and fungi that attack important sculptures, paintings, artifacts, photos, documents, records and books.

Experts say climate and insect-induced problems in Venezuela alone has already destroyed an estimated one-third of the country's artistic heritage.

UNU-BIOLAC, focussed on biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean, is breaking ground in the region by using DNA and other biotechnologies to identify specific papers, woods and other materials used for various art and other purposes in past centuries in order to devise more effective preservation strategies.

UNU-BIOLAC used DNA sequence technology, for example, to identify insects and bacteria eroding three wood types, including one from a temperate climate, used by colonial-era artists in Venezuela to create a likeness of the Madonna. It is now researching the promise of bacterial toxins (BTtoxin, normally used to create insect-resistant crops) as a biological way to destroy and repel the pests, avoiding the traditional application of invasive technologies that often damage an artwork's colour and structure.

Determining the species of plants and trees used to produce paper and artists' materials long ago is information vital to effective protection and preservation of their works.

The research has already attracted strong interest from curators worldwide; UNU-BIOLAC co-hosts the first regional symposium on the topic Nov. 4-5 at Simon Bolivar University and the Institute for Advanced Studies (IDEA) in Caracas: "Cultural Heritage Conservation in Tropical Zones – Preventive Conservation, Biotechnology and Education Programs in Conservation."

A new booklet, sponsored by Mercantil Bank Foundation, has been produced in Spanish with an expanded new English edition in progress.

"It is not uncommon for unprotected wooden colonial art in this region to collapse, the sculpture slowly eroded by nature through insects, bacteria and fungus," says scientist Jose Luis Ramirez, Director of UNU-BIOLAC.

"There are millions of bacteria and fungi causing a disaster throughout the developing world. Biotechnology allows us to identify exactly the material used by an artist, the specific pest that has invaded or threatens it, and to customize the preservation treatment required."

Among the historical records under threat are the letters, decorations and archives of "El Liberator," General Simon Bolivar, called the "George Washington of South America." His victories led to independence for Bolivia, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela.

Stored in Bolivar's native city of Caracas, "these records are really compromised," said Dr. Ramirez. "Something has to be done soon to save them, by identifying the natural toxin required to kill the insects decaying the papers and artifacts."

Tahia Rivero, curator of the art collection held by the Banco Mercantil Foundation, says many important paintings now are known only through art books. For example, just 13 works remain from the 20-year career of historic 18th century Venezuelan artist Jose Lorenzo Zurita. The rest have been destroyed through decay.

She estimates climate and insect-induced problems in Venezuela alone has destroyed one third of the country's artistic heritage (with a similar amount lost to other causes). Particularly vulnerable are ancient religious wooden sculptures which, if not properly preserved, can eventually crumble "like a saltine cracker," says Ms. Rivero.

The symposium Nov. 4-5 has attracted more than 100 registered curators and students and may lead to the creation of a post-graduate university program to help foster the application of biotechnology preservation techniques in museums and archives.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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