This Scientist Is Unlocking the Mysteries of Cheese

Cheese is full of bacteria and fungi. How they interact could solve some big scientific questions.

Cheesemaking is an art, but it’s also science. Like other fermented foods such as sourdough, kombucha, and kimchi, cheese is the product of bacteria and yeast, plus mould. Cheese is mostly coagulated milk, but adding a unique culture of microbes determines its texture and flavour. In the cheese’s thick exterior rind, microbes teem, jockey, and help create a covering to keep in moisture.

Microbiologist Benjamin Wolfe’s lab at Tufts University studies how bacteria and fungi interact in the small ecosystems of cheese (compared with the wild worlds inside the human gut or a scoop of soil). “There’s a war and peace happening on these cheese rinds,” says Wolfe. Understanding what influences the microbes’ behaviour will illuminate how to manipulate and engineer them. That could lead to more effective pharmaceuticals, new ways of inoculating crops from disease, even a future of microbes colonizing other planets. Not to mention better cheese.

TOMME DE SAVOIE

Mucor lanceolatus (fungus) and Serratia proteamaculans (bacteria) Bacteria on this French and Swiss cheese use molds as low-friction highways to spread across the cheese surface—an example of fungi and bacteria working together. The cheese is lower in fat, which the microbes feed on; that reduces the extent and pace of microbial activity.

PHOTOS: REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF; BENJAMIN E. WOLFE (MICROBES)

COUPOLE

Geotrichum candidum (fungus) The rind of this creamy Vermont cheese is dominated by a fungus. The mold gives the rind a wrinkled appearance. While the inside is mild and lemony, the rind is potent and intense, “like sweet buttery flatulence,” says microbiologist Benjamin Wolfe.
PHOTOS: REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF; BENJAMIN E. WOLFE (MICROBES)

BAYLEY HAZEN BLUE

Staphylococcus succinus, S. xylosus (bacteria), and Penicillium commune (fungus) This variety of blue cheese brims with unique microbial behaviour. Fungi wage open battle for territory by producing antibacterial compounds. Researchers also have documented that some microbes change with each new generation, similar to the way animals evolve.
PHOTOS: REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF; BENJAMIN E. WOLFE (MICROBES)

WINNIMERE

Vibrio casei, Psychrobacter sp., and Halomonas sp. (bacteria) This Vermont cheese contains a mix of yeast and bacteria. As with some other washed-rind cheeses, Winnimere hosts marine bacteria, likely from the brines and sea salts used to produce it. The moist and salty cheese offers prime conditions for these microbes to flourish.
PHOTOS: REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF; BENJAMIN E. WOLFE (MICROBES)

Lead Image: PHOTOGRAPH BY REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF

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