The Microbes That Make Cheese Taste Good Are Surprisingly Universal

Just a dozen different types of bacteria and fungi tend to dominate all different cheese types

Photo: Owen Franken/Corbis

Compared to the diversity of cheese—Brie, Manchego, gouda, cheddar, mozzarella, goat, feta, Stilton and on and on—the microbes that create cheese's delicious flavours are surprisingly lacking in diversity themselves. As Wired reports, just a handful of bacteria and fungi species seem to be responsible for the majority of cheeses enjoyed around the world.  

Cheese-loving scientists from Harvard discovered this after importing 137 cheeses from 10 countries to their lab. There, they genetically analyzed the living contents of those cheeses. All told, Wired writes, they found that just 10 types of bacteria and 14 types of fungi make up the majority of the cheeses' unseen ecological communities. What's more, geography really didn't have anything to do with it; a cheese from France was just as likely to share microbes with a cheese from Italy or Spain. The environment in which the cheese was created—think soft versus rind versus washed rind cheeses—instead explains most of the diversity, Wired reports. 

There were a couple of surprises among the microbes, however—Pseudoalteromonas and Vibrio, bacteria that normally live on shrimp and crab shells in the ocean. They most likely found their way into the cheese when sea salt was introduced for flavoring, and, once there, seemed to like the new living arrangements. As the researchers explained to Wired, "We think cheese makers might be creating the same kind of environment that these bacteria love in the cold damp ocean.”

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