In the Ideas section this week, Rowan Jacobsen profiles Rachel Dutton and Benjamin Wolfe, two Harvard microbiologists who are studying the bacterial ecosystems inside artisanal cheeses:
Artisanal cheese isn’t made of milk so much as it’s made of bacteria, fungi, and their byproducts — the milk is just the culture to grow the microorganisms. Each cheese is like a tiny, resource-rich island on which a collection of microbial species are thrown together, “Survivor” style. Along with postdoctoral fellow Benjamin Wolfe, Dutton is now in year one of a five-year project at Harvard University’s Center for Systems Biology to re-create those island communities in the lab and see who prospers, who gets double-crossed, and who gets voted off the island. To do that, they need to isolate all the organisms from a particular cheese, culture them in the lab, and then reintroduce them to each other in a number of different trials under slightly varied circumstances, and watch what happens.... When the two scientists attend American Cheese Society meetings, cheesemakers line up with their cheeses for analysis in a sort of microbial version of “Antiques Roadshow.”
The outcome of all this work will be a very fine-grained understanding of how microbial colonies work -- and it will be generalizable to other microbe-based foodstuffs, including beer, kimchi, chocolate, and salami! More: "The most delicious lab."
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