Rachel Dutton

Rachel Dutton

Cheese as a model for the study of microbial ecosystems

One of the most important challenges facing microbiology is how to understand the formation, function, and evolution of microbial ecosystems. While microbes have traditionally been studied as individuals in the laboratory, microbes usually do not exist as individuals in nature, but as part of complex, multi-species communities. Microbial communities have long been acknowledged as crucial for the proper functioning of our global ecosystem and have been implicated in influencing human health, both positively and negatively. In order to fully understand how microbes function within the context of the complex communities in which they exist outside of the laboratory, we need model systems with which we can combine the advances in genome and community-level analysis with the tradition of classical genetics and culturing-based approaches to microbiology.

Our lab is focusing on the study of the simplified, experimentally tractable microbial ecosystems found growing on the surface of cheeses as models for the behavior of microbes in complex communities. These communities, and their rich assembly of metabolic capacities, contribute much of the diversity in flavors, smells, and textures of the hundreds of different varieties of cheeses.

Our lab will apply a range of culture-dependent and independent methods to study the microbial diversity in the surface-associated communities that make up the rind, on identifying and characterizing inter-species interactions, and on developing an experimental model system to study microbial ecosystems.

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