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Wasabi: The spicy secret to saving ancient Egyptian papyrus

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A team of international scientists has found that wasabi, or Japanese horseradish, a well-known partner for sushi, can treat and preserve ancient Egyptian papyrus.

What they discovered: Their findings, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, show that wasabi vapors can eradicate microbial growth, particularly of fungi, in both painted and non-painted papyrus samples with an “inhibition efficiency of 100%.”

Microbes are known to damage papyrus, a material used in ancient Egypt, as well as ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, for documentation. The scientists also found that wasabi increased the tensile strength of the samples by 26% without changing their painted color or damaging them.

How the study was conducted: For the experiment, the scientists used a mixture of wasabi powder and distilled water, which they turned into a “dumpling-like state.” For the test subjects, they used papyrus replicas painted red, yellow and blue. They then put the replicas into an oven for 120 days to mimic the aging process before exposing them to various fungal specimens commonly found on archeological papyri.

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The replicas were then exposed to wasabi vapor for three days, which yielded positive results. The scientists conducted a follow-up a month later and saw similar results.

How it’s possible: The scientists attributed wasabi’s anti-fungal effects to allyl isothiocyanate (AITC), a chemical compound and colorless oil that gives wasabi its pungent taste. AITC is known for having antimicrobial properties against various microorganisms.

What’s next: The discovery promises a cost-effective and more sustainable alternative for preserving papyri. In the future, the method may also be used to test on other materials such as wood and paper.

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