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Say bye to brie: Some of your favorite cheeses may soon be extinct

Continuous cloning of the fungus used in some French cheeses has created a lack of microbial diversity that could mean the end for some favorites.
Say bye to brie: Some of your favorite cheeses may soon be extinct
Posted at 3:42 PM, Mar 12, 2024

So it's your turn to make the get-together's perfect charcuterie board.

You obviously have to make it look Instagrammable, but that's just the sum of its parts. The first step is deciding how to actually build your design, and variety is key: It's choosing the salty snacks and rolled-up meats, maybe a few jams and fruits, and then there's the cheeses. Any expert will tell you to add some contrasting textures — again, variety — like adding a hard parmesan and a soft brie (just don't forget to add the honey).

But there's a potential shift coming in the cheese world that might affect just how well you can craft your assortment, and your artisanal grocery store's relationship with cows can't help you.

Unfortunately, the issue lies with something a bit more serious than your appetizer plans; it's about the imminent death of some French cheeses.

According to France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), favorites like blue, brie and Camembert are at risk of extinction due to the way humans have standardized how we mass produce them. 

See, each cheese contains a host of microorganisms that turn milk into curds, and these soft, milky-rinded cheeses depend on a fungus called Penicillium camemberti. At the turn of the 20th century, cheesemakers selected this specific albino strain to make their products the uniform color and consistency we know today, after the original strain used often produced cheeses with unpredictable colors and varying flavors. 

The problem is that P. camemberti cannot reproduce naturally with other fungi, meaning cheesemakers have continuously cloned the strain to recreate the consistent end-product. Over time, however, the repeated process has caused mutations in P. camemberti's genome, causing it to lose its ability to produce asexual spores. Without these, the industry won't have enough P. camemberti spores to keep up its production of some of its famous cheeses, namely Camembert.

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"We've been able to domesticate these invisible organisms just as we did with dogs or cabbage," fungi and genome researcher Jeanne Ropars said to CNRS. "But what happened, as it does every time an organism large or small is subjected to overly drastic selection, is that their genetic diversity has been greatly reduced. Working with microorganisms, the cheesemakers didn't realize that they had selected a single individual, which is not sustainable over the long term." 

But don't go buying out the cheese section just yet.

While it's true, according to CNRS, that the form of Camembert and other similar cheeses we know today might eventually disappear, adapted versions will likely take their place. 

These new versions could, ironically, depend on the original fungus that was discarded due to its varied products. The strain, called Penicillium biforme, is genetically similar to P. camemberti, but it possesses an "incredible genetic and phenotypic diversity," CNRS said. 

Cheesemakers could also introduce Penicillium roqueforti to save the cheeses. The fungus is used in the fermentation of all blue and veined cheeses and causes the blue-green mold and lines in them. 

While researchers once thought it was also diminished due to repeated cloning instead of sexual reproduction, researchers with CNRS have found it in Termignon blue, a little-known cheese produced in a few French Alps farms. 

CNRS researchers say this discovery is a "bombshell in the world of cheese" and could "well save the entire blue cheese industry," as the newly-discovered population of P. roqueforti could offer the genetic diversity lacking in their ferments. 

With either option, the familiar cheeses might start to look, smell and taste a little different — but hey, it's all just a little more variety to add to that charcuterie board.

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