Biodegradation of ivory (natural apatite): possible involvement of fungal activity in biodeterioration of the Lewis Chessmen

Flavia Pinzari, Jame Tate, Marina Bicchieri, Young Joon Rhee, Geoffrey Michael Gadd (Lead / Corresponding author)

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    35 Citations (Scopus)


    Fungal biodeterioration of ivory was investigated with in vitro inoculation of samples obtained from boar and walrus tusks with the fungi Aspergillus niger and Serpula himantioides, species of known geoactive abilities. A combination of light and scanning electron microscopy together with associated analytical techniques was used to characterize fungal interactions with the ivory, including changes in ivory composition, dissolution and tunnelling, and the formation of new biominerals. The research was aimed at providing further understanding of the potential roles of fungi in the colonization and deterioration of ivory in terrestrial environments, but also contributes to our knowledge regarding the possible origins of the surface damage observed on early medieval sculptures made largely from walrus tusks, referred to as ‘the Lewis hoard of gaming pieces’, that were presumably produced for playing chess. The experiments have shown that the possibility of damage to ivory being caused by fungi is realistic. Scanning electron microscopy revealed penetration of fungal hyphae within cracks in the walrus tusk that showed also widespread tunnelling by fungal hyphae as well as ‘fungal footprints’ where the surface was etched as a consequence of mycelial colonization. Similar phenomena were observed with boar tusk ivory, while production of metabolites could lead to complete dissolution of the sample. Colonization of ivory and/or exposure to fungal activity lead to extensive secondary biomineral formation, and this was identified as calcium oxalate, mainly as the monohydrate, whewellite.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1050-1062
    Number of pages13
    JournalEnvironmental Microbiology
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Apr 2012


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