Stains versus colourants produced by fungi colonising paper cultural heritage: a review

D. Melo, Sílvia Oliveira Sequeira, João Almeida Lopes, Maria Filomena Macedo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)


Books, prints, drawings, watercolours, engravings, as well as all other works of art based on paper, are very susceptible to fungal development. The excreted substances and the fungal structures themselves are often coloured and interfere with the readability of the artefacts, diminishing their artistic and monetary value. In order to direct cleaning methods for specific fungal stains on paper, the colourants (molecules) responsible for those stains need to be assessed. However, the literature regarding fungal stains on paper and colourants produced by those fungi is very dispersed and scarce. Therefore, the main objectives of this work were surveying the most common stains on paper, the colourants present on those stains and the main fungi responsible for these colourants’ production. To achieve these goals, two different but complementary literature reviews were made: one on paper conservation literature, where fungal stains observed on paper cultural heritage are reported; and another survey on the chemical/food/pharmaceutical fields where colourants’ molecules produced by fungi, that can colonise paper cultural heritage, are identified and studied in greater detail. This paper presents the first literature review on this subject. The results show that the fungal genera more frequently related with fungal stains on paper cultural heritage are Aspergillus (29%) and Penicillium (13%). The most common colour of the stains is brown (54%), caused by foxing in most of the cases. However, in the paper conservation literature, no consistent correlation has been observed between stain colour on paper/specific fungal species and colourants/chemical compounds. On the literature review regarding the use of fungal colourants for industrial/commercial purposes, the referred colourants can be mostly classified chemically as carotenoids and polyketides. Biosynthetically, most colourants produced by fungi are polyketide-based and representative classes may include chemical structures such as azaphilones, anthraquinones, hydroxyanthraquinones, naphthoquinones and other structures. From a total of 80 different colourants, the ones mostly produced by paper colonising fungi were polyketide quinones, namely the hydroxyanthraquinoid (HAQN) colourants. This review showed that the most commonly studied colours are yellow and red, followed by orange. The production of these colourants is often associated with the genera Aspergillus sp. and Penicillium sp. which are frequently found on stained paper. Overall, there is no doubt that colourants producing fungi are a serious problem to paper conservators, since there is a great variety of colourants produced by different species of fungi colonising paper. This review catalogues the fungal genera, species and excreted colourants mentioned in the literature as being responsible for staining paper cultural heritage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)161-182
JournalJournal of Cultural Heritage
Issue numberJanuary-February
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • Colourants
  • Cultural heritage
  • Fungi
  • Paper
  • Stains


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