Harvard’s Dutton Lab is running the cheese equivalent of the Apollo moonshot

"This could change the way cheese is made"


Camembert’s rind is a type of mould called penicillium candidum. (Shutterstock)

Cheese-making, for all its delightful ends, remains a somewhat mysterious process. But at a small lab in Cambridge, Mass., three American researchers and a Vermont cheese company are aiming to change that.

Harvard’s Dutton Lab has already partnered with David Chang’s world-famous Momofuku test kitchen to study the fermentation of foods like miso, koju and katsuobushi. But it’s the lab’s work reverse-engineering cheese that has the food world really excited.

Professor Rachel Dutton, along with postdoctoral researchers Ben Wolfe and Julie Button, has spent the past several years mapping, analyzing and otherwise fiddling with the microbial communities in 160 different kinds of cheese rind. Their work, which they’re conducting with cheese maker Jasper Hill Farm, is providing an unprecedented look at the fungi and bacteria that do things like make Camembert gooey and blue cheese blue.

“There’s already a lot of people thinking about the possibilities of how this could change the way cheese is made,” says Dutton. “Cheese makers don’t tend to be aware of what sorts of microbes are present on their cheese when it’s growing. The rind is a little bit more mysterious. And it can have huge effects on the flavour of the cheese or on how quickly the cheese breaks down.”

For affineurs (experts in maturing cheese) and the larger cheese industry, the Dutton lab research could be revolutionary. For the rest of us it might just mean a future with more varied and delicious snacks.