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Will brie and Camembert cheeses go extinct? Here’s what scientists say.

Cutting brie in a cheese store in London in 2007. (Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

Legend has it that the world has the French Revolution to thank for Camembert. The cheese with hints of caramelized butter and earthy mushrooms dates back to 1791, when a fleeing priest is said to have shared the recipe with a farm woman from Camembert who’d welcomed him into her home.

The cheese has since become a staple in France and abroad. McDonald’s - to some French customers’ dismay - once rolled out a burger topped with slices of Camembert, which also inspired artist Salvador Dalí's famous gooey clocks.

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But Camembert and its blander-tasting cousin, brie cheese, have in recent weeks been the subjects of headlines and social media posts declaring that the beloved fromages are heading for the grave.

The warnings followed a study by the French National Center for Scientific Research that said the cheeses are on “the verge of extinction” - a death sentence driven by what the scientists said was a fungal crisis.

Does this mean charcuterie boards are doomed to a future sans delightfully stinky cheese? Here’s what scientists told The Washington Post.

What does mold have to do with my brie?

Not to be gross, but that delicious snack that complements your favorite glass of wine is actually a dynamic ecosystem.

Cheese has a “whole community of molds, yeasts as well as bacteria,” said Benjamin Wolfe, associate professor at Tufts University’s biology department. “They’re all hanging out, growing and working together to decompose the cheese.”

All cheese starts the same way: as milk that’s left to curdle. Microbes come to play in the aging process, or the stage that gives cheeses like Camembert their signature funk.

“Those molds are essentially doing what we call ‘delicious rot,’” Wolfe said. Like a fungus breaking down a log or those pesky blue splotches spreading through an old piece of bread, the molds in the cheese break down the milk. “And as they do that, they’re releasing all kinds of delicious things people love in Camembert: that sort of sulfury funk that I like to call ‘sweet buttery flatulence,’” he added.

Camembert and brie are now both made with the same type of mold: Penicillium camemberti, which gives the cheeses their fluffy white coverings and beloved aromas of dirty socks.

And that, the French scientists said, could lead to their demise.

What’s the problem with Penicillium camemberti?

Until recently, Camembert and brie came covered in shades of blue, orange and green - a product of the different strains of molds used to make the cheeses, said Jeanne Ropars, an evolutionary biologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research and Université Paris-Saclay.

Eventually, cheesemakers identified a particular strain of mold that was not only fast-growing, but also gave cheese an appealing white covering. By the 1950s, the combination of industrialization and demand for uniform-looking cheese turned Penicillium camemberti into the gold standard. It’s now the sole strain used in the production of brie and Camembert.

Over time, that could prove problematic, Ropars said.

Penicillium camemberti can’t reproduce on its own, so it has to be cloned over and over again - which means that every cheese is made with a genetically identical strain. That lack of genetic diversity makes it vulnerable to pathogens or other environmental changes, Ropars said.

With each mold being a cookie-cutter version of each other, one nasty disease could wipe out the population of Penicillium camemberti, Ropars said. It’s the same issue other foods - such as bananas - are facing.

Could brie and Camembert go extinct?

The short answer: not any time soon, so cheese lovers can breathe a sigh of relief.

Still, Ropars warns, Penicillium camemberti “cannot survive if we keep going down this path.” She and the other French scientists behind the study want to help prevent similar “errors” in future food production.

Despite the lack of diversity in the mold, Wolfe remains optimistic that industry innovation will save the cheeses.

“There are already some really great people out there working on new ways to innovate and making these molds do new things,” he said.

What should cheese fans do?

Ropars and her team suggest getting comfortable with more diverse, funkier-looking and tasting cheeses - that is, Camembert and brie made with other mold strains.

Customers are used to an albino version of a mold covering some of their favorite cheeses, which makes them white. But Ropars said it might be time to embrace a Camembert or brie that comes in a shade of blue, green or orange.

That approach, however, comes with its own sets of challenges, Wolfe cautioned. Changing up molds can be unpredictable and not at all appetizing.

“You just don’t want your cheese to taste like a moldy basement,” he said.

He and his team are already experimenting with ways to rapidly domesticate some wild mold strains. The goal is to shade the undesirable traits or potential toxins without genetically modifying the fungus.

And, he added, producers are coming up with different types of cheeses.

For now, Wolfe said, there are many world crises to worry about - and panic over cheese isn’t one of them. Though, if he’s being honest, a world in which cheese is the biggest problem “would be great,” he said.

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