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What bacteria are right for delicious cheese? We went to a cheese cave to find out

The delicious microbial truth of how your cheese gets made

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Think of cheese. What pops into your mind? Creamy, tangy brie? Dry, crumbly feta? Whatever cheese you thought about, you have microbes to thank for that delicious food. Which microbes exactly? Cheesemakers are still trying to figure that out — with the help of scientists.

Murray’s Cheese in New York City develops its own cheddar from scratch, called Stockinghall Cheddar, and microbiologists Jeanne Garbarino and Odaelys Walwyn from Rockefeller University have been studying what communities of microbes live on this cheddar as it ages. Those microbial changes play a big role in how different cheeses develop different flavors. And today, we finally have the tools to study the changes up close.

Technologies like next-generation sequencing allow us to ID the types of bacteria and fungi that are found in the cheddar at different points in time. So, if you have scraps of cheese rind taken every week for a year, you can build a map of how those microbes change over time. That’s what Garbarino and Walwyn are doing. Every week, they went to Murray’s cheese caves in Queens, where the cheddar is aged. They swabbed the rind, as well as the shelves where the cheeses are kept, and they took samples of the inside of the cheese. About a year ago, we tagged along — and now, we finally have some preliminary results.

Watch the video above to take a look inside the cheese caves and discover what DNA sequencing is telling us about the Stockinghall Cheddar. Right now, all of this information is more of a curiosity… and a pretty small drop in the big bucket of cheese research. Other scientists are looking at how different types of farming affect the microbes found in milk — and therefore, cheese. And others are working with cheesemakers to help them create original cocktails of bacteria to add to the milk so that their cheeses can have a more unique taste.

Still, just knowing how communities of bacteria interact with each other on cheese gives cheesemakers like Murray’s key intelligence on how their products are made. And it gives us great insight on how microbes live on our planet.