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Brie and Milbenkäse Are the New “Lab Rats” for Microbiologists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Cultures of Scopulariopsis, bacteria used in ripening cheeses with self-formed rinds

Trillions of microbes, a galaxy’s worth of prokaryotes, inhabit the human GI tract.

Figuring out what the microbiome does, as this Brobdingnagian collection of critters is known, remains a grand challenge of biology.

As always, scientists try to make a difficult problem tractable by conducting studies in a simpler version of the organism or environment they wish to observe: a mouse, rat, fruit fly or roundworm as stand-ins for humans. In the case of the microbiome, some of those model systems come from down the street at the local cheese store.

Last week microbiologist Rachel Dutton described to a gathering at the World Science Festival how her laboratory at the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard works with bacteria and fungi that inhabit the rinds of cheeses to better understand the communal behavior of microbes. Next time you view  handmade cheeses on display, look at the rinds and think about the pitched battles and the calculated alliances that have taken place on those crusty biofilm coatings.  “We’re learning that there’s all kinds of interactions in communities on cheese,” Dutton says.

The colloquy took place not in a college auditorium but at Murray’s Cheese, a Greenwich Village institution that has its own aging caves in the basement, one of which is known as the stink tank. Suited up with booties, hairnets and white coats, the group talked to Brian Ralph, Murray’s cave master, about cheese mites.

“Right now you’re not selling anything with mites?” one woman asked.

Ralph had explained that that’s what you get when you pay good money for some cheeses: mites eat  microbes on the aging rinds. They can leave tiny pockmarks and help with the  ripening, or affinage, perhaps lending the product dusty and bitter notes.

It’s hard but well-compensated labor. A mite-worked Mimolette from Murray’s will run you $35 a pound. Pair it with an antiseptic strong ale or Scotch, if you’re queasy. But you should get over it. The fear of these little beings seems misplaced as they’ve already taken up residence big time in your duodenum.

So get onboard with the microbiologists—and bien sûr the cheese connoisseurs—and show a little love. The alliance between the culture of fondue and the one that enables the gene sequencing of Scopulariopsis (a relative of what might be on your toenails)—may translate into a deeper understanding of gut microbes involved in human health.

Image Source: FAS Center for Systems Biology, Harvard University

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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