Forget white mice, cheese is the new lab rat
You’ll never look at it the same way again—those green-blue veins in a block of Roquefort. The white, powdery rind of Brie. Even the holes in a slice of Swiss. All are the result of fungal and bacterial interactions, making for a perfect environment to study microbial communities. (Apologies if that ruins your appetite.)
Assistant Professor of Biology Rachel Dutton, ERC ’02, is taking a cue from 10,000 years of artisanal cheesemaking to better understand how the microbial communities form and work together to create some of the most prized culinary delicacies. But the true impact of her research goes far beyond the cutting board.
“Cheese and other fermented foods are examples of highly reproducible and very interesting microbial communities,” says Dutton. “And those communities are what gives food like cheese interesting flavors, textures and smells that we recognize. Simple systems like cheese allow us to bring these organisms easily into the lab.”
Dutton seeks to answer how the different communities of bacteria and fungi come together in the first place and evolve over time. The insights gathered could have profound applications outside of food, and help us better analyze and manipulate the interactions of microbial communities to benefit human health.
“When we eat a food like cheese, we don’t think about the fact that this is an ecosystem we’re eating,” says Dutton. “Our studies look at what happens to these microbes when you eat them and whether they have any impact on the gut microbiome.”
Dutton’s research brings a novel approach to UC San Diego’s campus-wide Microbiome and Microbial Sciences Initiative, which unites researchers on collaborative efforts for a more detailed understanding of the microbiome—the distinct communities of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that live within and around us.
Dutton returned to her alma mater last fall after a five-year fellowship at Harvard University, during which she and colleagues applied new genetic sequencing techniques to reveal the bacteria and fungi behind more than 130 varieties of artisanal cheeses from 10 countries around the world.
Dutton’s innovative study on artisanal cheese not only was groundbreaking science published in the esteemed journal Cell, but also created a buzz in the food industry. It’s given her cred among cheese makers, famous chefs and food artisans who continually seek out her advice about the microbes responsible for the flavors and aromas of a wide variety of fermented foods, including cheese.
Her knowledge of microbial fermentation—as well as her own passion for good food—even led to an appearance on a recent episode of the Netflix documentary “Cooked,” based on the book by Michael Pollan. And it’s convinced many of her scientific colleagues that her unusual approach to studying microbial communities may not be such a cheesy idea after all.