This blog post was written by Adriann Negreros, an undergraduate researcher in the Dutton lab at Harvard.
We work in a cheese lab, so it’s no surprise to learn that we all love to eat—and to have fun. Yes, we do have our 9-5’s, but the daily grind in the Dutton lab just isn’t all that troublesome (clearly, we need to work more). Jokes aside, when we’re not dissecting a fresh rind of Bayley Hazen Blue into 1 mm x 1 mm squares (to discover just “who” is living there), or slowly uncovering a new species via our cheeses—we’re playing with mites. Yes, mites; those seemingly scary eight-legged little critters capable of growing on cheese.
Our latest experiment deals with creating a “Mite Salad Bar,” a buffet of sorts in which the mites will get to decide what fungi is their favorite. There are over 45,000 known species of mites—don’t worry, only about 100 are infesting commons foods including cheese (genus Tyroglyphus, with the most common species found in cheese being Acarus siro). It is thought that mites graze on the fungi growing on the surface of aging cheese, but no one really knows what exactly mites like to eat, and if they prefer (or are repulsed by) some fungi over others.
We are currently testing these preferences using seven fungi isolated from cheeses aged in the magical caves of the Cellars at Jasper Hill. The experiment, briefly speaking, will look something like Figure 1. The mites are placed in the center of a petri dish on which we have grown our seven different species of fungi. We will then follow the mites using time-lapse videos in which we hope to answer questions such as: What do the mites like to eat (of the seven fungi)? How long do they stay there? Do they have preferences?
So, why cheese mites? Well…of course they aren’t all bad! In fact, some suggest that the mites can enhance flavors, or even contribute to the texture of the cheese (just like the bacteria and fungi we oh so dearly love). There’s a lot left to be discovered about these little guys, but this “pilot experiment” will give us a flavor into mite gastronomy. It will also, naturally, be fun.