Rapidly multiplying bacteria are eating away vivid pictures from the walls of King Tut's tomb, one of Egypt's most-visited tourist sites.

Specialists have begun applying an antidote they hope can arrest the bacteria, but antiquities officials say the original color never can be restored due to the small, poxlike black specks and blotches marring the walls."The situation inside the tomb is extremely serious," said Mutaw'ie Balboush, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization's director for upper Egypt. "Damage is appearing almost everywhere you look among the figures."

At the start of the winter tourist season in early November, officials were so worried they considered closing the tomb to let conservators work unhindered.

After the antidote was developed last week, however, work to save the paintings was scheduled before and after tourist hours.

Tutankhamun, a young pharaoh who died in 1323 B.C., was buried in a makeshift tomb stuffed with riches in the barren Valley of the Kings - the southern wasteland where royalty and nobility were buried for 500 years.

During tourist season, his single-chambered tomb draws more than 2,500 visitors a day.

Its wall paintings, some with colors as bright as the day they were painted, depict noblemen and officials transporting Tut's mummy to the tomb. They include a unique scene of the "Opening of the Mouth" rite in which the dead king is given eternal life.