How many of us ever consider the role played by the humble fungus when we’re cutting through the skin-like rind of Camembert or indulging in the deep and pungent flavours of Stilton or Roquefort ? Not many of us I suspect, but without these microbes none of the cheeses above would exist.
Beyond their obvious roles in generating the flavour of the cheeses, they have other remarkable and often overlooked properties. For example, in the case of Camembert the mould generates the rind, a highly complex living surface that protects the cheese, and defends it against microorganisms that would otherwise spoil its nutritious and creamy interior. These properties might one day form the basis of smart and functional materials, that would be both self-cleaning or sterilizing.
Taking inspiration, from scientists at the Institute for Chemical and Bio-Engineering in Zurich, myself and artist Ninela Ivanova, isolated the moulds from Camembert, Stilton and Roquefort and simply cultured them on the surface of milk to make these remarkable textiles which are essentially a living fungal biofilm. The materials have the appearance of suede but are strongly hydrophobic, that is, they strongly repel water, which if applied to textile forms small beads and simply rolls off. A microbiological and sustainable version of GortexTM, may be just around the corner ; – )