Photograph by REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF
Photograph by REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF

This Scientist Is Unlocking the Mysteries of Cheese

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

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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 mold. Cheese is mostly coagulated milk, but adding a unique culture of microbes determines its texture and flavor. 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’ behavior 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.