Researchers discover world of DNA, bacteria on Leonardo da Vinci drawings

THE STAR – The drawings of Leonardo da Vinci hold many mysteries, even 500 years after they were first sketched. While some offer clues as to the identity of the Renaissance master’s models, others have been found to contain some more surprising things.

Researchers have discovered residues of DNA and bacteria on several of the artist’s most famous drawings, revealing all kinds of information about the geographical areas they have passed through and the experts who have restored them.

Scientists from Austria and Italy have studied the microbiome of a selection of drawings by the Italian artist, Leonardo da Vinci, most of which are housed in the Royal Library of Turin.

These include Autoritratto, Studi delle gambe anteriori di un cavallo and Figura presso il fuoco. The researchers used an innovative genomic approach called Nanopore sequencing to extract DNA residues found in the drawings.

Their findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, showed a surprising dominance of bacteria over fungi. Previously, researchers thought that fungi were the dominant microbial community in paper-based art.

That’s why art conservationists go to great lengths to prevent the development of fungi, responsible for the deterioration of old manuscripts and drawings.

Although surprising, this predominance of bacteria could be explained by Leonardo da Vinci’s fame. In fact, the researchers discovered that a high proportion of the bacteria identified were typical to the microbiome of the human body.

This suggests that the drawings have passed through many hands over the years. This theory is further reinforced by the presence of a large amount of human DNA on the drawings. It is, however, impossible to say with any certainty whether any of the DNA traces are genetic material from the Italian master himself.

Analysing the microbiome of several Leonardo da Vinci drawings revealed a surprising dominance of bacteria over fungi. PHOTO: AFP