The Harvard Microbial Sciences Initiative Graduate Consortium hosted a fun workshop during the January term where students learned about microscopy by taking some amazing pictures of food microbes. The images taken with the scanning electron microscope of sauerkraut, kombucha, and some stinky cheeses show beautiful and complex landscapes made by and of microbes.
Sauerkraut is fermented by cute rod-shaped lactic acid bacteria:
Kombucha, a tea fermented by a combination of yeasts and bacteria, looks incredible under the microscope, where you can see the dense mesh of cellulose fibers that the microbes produce. These fibers form a “raft” on top of the tea that can be dried and pressed into sturdy sheets, like those used to make BioCouture:
The surfaces of different types of cheeses are each uniquely beautiful (and delicious) microbial landscapes. Lactic acid bacteria like the ones that make sauerkraut curdle milk to make the insides of the cheese, but the rinds and flavors of aged cheeses come from complex communities of different fungi and bacteria that you can see intertwined in the images:
UPDATE! I just learned that Penicillium, the genus of fungus that makes the white rind on brie cheese and the blue veins in blue cheese, is named after the latin word for “paintbrush” because of its shape:
Scanning electron microscopes highlight the three dimensional microscopic surfaces and taking two pictures of the same thing from slightly different angles can be used to make real 3D pictures. Get out your red and blue glasses!
It’s easy to ignore the microbial world until it causes disease, but healthy microbes can help keep food safe from some of the more dangerous species, and microbes that live in our digestive system and on our skin help keep our bodies healthy. I hope that pictures like these can inspire a love and appreciation for microbes that you can remember next time you eat some cheese.