Oct 30, 2011

Doing research one cheese at a time

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.
From Dutton's profile at Harvard:
Our lab is focusing on the study of the simplified, experimentally tractable microbial ecosystems found growing on the surface of cheeses as models for the behavior of microbes in complex communities. These communities, and their rich assembly of metabolic capacities, contribute much of the diversity in flavors, smells, and textures of the hundreds of different varieties of cheeses.
While most of Rachel’s career centers around nonfood topics—she’s currently finishing a PhD thesis on protein folding in the bacterium that causes tuberculosis—she’s made it her personal mission to educate the public on the beneficial properties of bacteria and fungi. That’s what led her to cheese. Most of us notice microbes only when they’re making us ill, but cheese is a universally beloved product of microbial action.
Since Louis Pasteur identified microbes as the cause of both fermentation and foodborne illness, most dairy food science has concentrated on those two avenues of study: how to make cheese and how to keep it fresh. What makes Dutton’s work unique is that she’s not particularly concerned with production or hygiene. What most interests her is studying cheeses for what they really are: unique microscopic worlds of their own.

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