Aims: To detect bacteria present in controlled dairy ecosystems with defined composition by length-heterogeneity (LH)-PCR. LH-PCR allows to distinguish different organisms on the basis of natural variations in the length of 16S rRNA gene sequences. Methods and Results: LH-PCR was applied to depict population structure of the lactic acid bacteria (LAB) species recoverable from Grana Padano cheese whey starters. Typical bacterial species present in the LAB community were evidenced and well discriminated. Small differences in species composition, e.g. the frequent finding of Streptococcus thermophilus and the constant presence of thermophilic lactobacilli (Lactobacillus helveticus, Lact. delbrueckii subsp. lactis/bulgaricus and Lact. fermentum) were reliably highlighted. Specificity of LH-PCR was confirmed by species-specific PCR from total DNA of the cultures. Conclusions: LH-PCR is a useful tool to monitor microbial composition and population dynamics in dairy starter cultures. When present, non-dominant bacterial species present in the whey starters, such as Strep. thermophilus, can easily be visualized and characterized without isolating and cultivating single strains. A similar approach can be applied to more complex dairy ecosystems such as milk or cheese curd. Significance and Impact of the Study: Community members and differences in population structure of controlled dairy ecosystems such as whey starters for hard cheeses can be evaluated and compared in a relative easy, fast, reliable and highly reproducible way.
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