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November 2, 2020


Turns out those distinctly funky smells from cheese are one way fungi communicate with bacteria, and what they're saying has a lot to do with the delicious variety of flavors that cheese has to offer. The discovery was made by researchers at Tufts University, with support from the National Science Foundation. The findings could have implications for agriculture and medicine, too.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Funky fungi.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Swiss, Bleu, Camembert, Limburger. For ages, humans have enjoyed the flavors and aromas of, aaah, glorious cheese.

Scientists have known the distinctive aromas and flavors come from microbial activity, but how the aromas affect the cheese microbiome has never been studied -- until now. A recent NSF-funded project out of Tufts University sniffs out, (Sound effect: sniffing sound) "The Secret Life of Smelly Cheese."

The diverse aromas are not just an after-effect. Fungi in the cheese rind send signals into the air in the form of chemical compounds. To us, they're just smells. To the bacteria ripening the cheese, they're food! (Sound effect: bacterium voices: yum!) Different fungi serve up different compounds, which enhances certain species' bacterial growth and inhibits others affecting characteristics like aroma and flavor.

The team says cheesemakers themselves may be able to use airborne chemicals to control the makeup of the microbiome, creating a variety of new cheeses.

The technique could also help improve soil and crop production -- even help manage diseases affected by the smorgasbord of bacteria in our bodies. And give us, more diverse flavors and (Sound effect: snif!) aromas of cheese.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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