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Inside Ideas: The Microbiology of Cheese

Posted by Josh Rothman  October 27, 2011 02:30 PM

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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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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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