No, Camembert isn't going away, but cheesemakers should embrace 'more sustainable system with local strains'

The reason for this was an article published by the French National Centre for Scientific Research echoing the concerns of two researchers who had been studying the loss of genetic diversity in fungus species adapted for use by cheesemakers.  

This is because over the years, cheese manufacturers had increasingly relied on species that can reproduce asexually. This is ideal for industrial-scale cheese production, but bad for the species’ genetic diversity.

“Fungi can reproduce both sexually and asexually, and for cheesemaking, the asexual reproduction is used,” explained Jeanne Ropars, who alongside colleague Tatiana Giraud has been researching the loss of key genetic traits in fungi used for cheesemaking. “For replicating a strain, you just take a piece of mycelium from a medium and put it on a new medium; it’s clonal reproduction.

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P. Roqueforti is the the species used to produce Roquefort. Image: Getty/Enez Selvi

“The problem with asexual reproduction is that there is no way to prevent accumulation of deleterious mutations in genomes and that there is no genetic diversity. This lack of diversity prevents the species to be able to adapt to changes.”

Fungi selected for cheesemaking are picked for certain preferred traits, such as how well they grow on cheese, the colour and aromas they provide, and the non-production of mycotoxins. For example, a single mutant of Penicillium camemberti that delivers Camembert’s white, soft rind has become the go-to strain for cheesemakers.

But it’s become increasingly difficult to obtain spores of the white strain, which has also lost its ability to reproduce. “We are concerned about the dramatic genetic loss in this species, as P. camemberti is a single white albino mutant,” Ropars said. “There is no way for P. camemberti to cope with the accumulation of deleterious mutations in its genome.”