Bacteria Cheese: Scientists Make Dairy With Cultures From Human Arm Pits, Feet, Belly Buttons, Tears and Noses

By Ajit Jha on November 22, 2013 9:50 AM EST

Cheese made from chef Michael Pollan's belly button bacteria.
Cheese made from chef Michael Pollan's belly button bacteria.

To some, it's stomach-churning. But to others, it may be a gastronomical delight. Under the project called 'Selfmade' for an exhibition in Dublin, American scientist and artist Christina Agapakis and Norweigen scent expert Sissel Tolaas created a total of 11 cheeses all made from human bacteria samples. Continue reading ahead at your own risk...but once you decide to read, continue reading till the end to prevent yourself from turning into a complete cynic.

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The starter cultures for each cheese were taken from human skin — more precisely, the cultures were taken from "armpits, a foot. and belly button." All the 11 cheeses were harvested from the skin of cheese makers, anthropologists, scientists, and artists using sterile cotton swabs sent to the donors. This exhibition about synthetic biology in Dublin claims to use bacteria from chef Michael Pollan, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and artist Olafur Eliasson to make human cheese. Agapakis and Tolaas collected bacteria from Pollan's belly button, Obrist's nose, and Eliasson's tears to make the artisanal dairy products.

Cheese made of microbes from cheesemaker Seana Doughty's mouth.
Cheese made of microbes from cheesemaker Seana Doughty's mouth.

"We are presenting a set of cheeses made using bacteria from the human body," Agapakis told the art magazine de zeen. "Everybody has a unique and diverse set of bacteria living on their skin that can be amplified using techniques from microbiology and grown directly in milk to form and flavour each cheese."

"Selfmade is a series of 'microbial sketches', portraits reflecting an individual's microbial landscape in a unique cheese" proclaims Tolaas on her website. If you thought these cheeses might reek with offensive smell, you're not off the mark; the cheese is designed to represent the flavors of the humans they belong to, since each cheese (like the human body) carries a unique set of microbes that shape its odour metabolically. Agapakis admits that "Despite [their] chemical and biological similarities, there are obviously very different cultural and emotional responses to stinky cheese and stinky feet."

The goal of the project was to explore synthetic biology through the traditional practices of cheese making. "By making cheese directly from the microbes on the body" said Agapakis, "we want to highlight these bacterial connections as well as to question and potentially expand the role of both odors and microbes in our lives." That being said, the cheese wasn't meant to be eaten, the designers said, but has been created on the contrary "to inspire new conversations about our relationship to the body and to our bacteria."

Cheese made from microbiologist Ben Wolfe's toe microbes.
Cheese made from microbiologist Ben Wolfe's toe microbes.


Here's the full artist statement:

"We not only live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but in a cultural world that emphasises total antisepsis. The intersection of our interests in smell and microbial communities led us to focus on cheese as a 'model organism'. Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet.

Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies? How do humans cultivate and value bacterial cultures on cheeses and fermented foods? How will synthetic biology change with a better understanding of how species of bacteria work together in nature as opposed to the pure cultures of the lab?"


And here's a video where Agapakis and Tolaas explain their process:

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