November 26, 2013
Toe Jam, Let Me Introduce You To Armpit Cheese
Scientist Christina Agapakis and scent expert Sissel Tolaas have collaborated to create a new kind of cheese, but don’t expect to see it on your store shelves anytime soon. Hopefully.
You see, this cheese is made from microbes obtained from human skin. Our skin is home to a whole world of microbes, and, oddly, Agapakis and Tolaas thought that using these microbes to make cheese would be a good idea. They got the bacteria from all of the parts of the body that we most associate with odor, e.g. armpits, feet and belly buttons. They combined these bacteria with the usual ingredients of cheese, and, voilà, they created cheese that smells like body odor.
They didn’t use just anyone’s bacteria for the 11 cheeses. These are celebrity cheeses. Sterile swabs were sent to a variety of notable people, who then returned their bacteria-laden swabs to the cheese lab. Some of the sources were the tears of Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, the nose of London curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the toes of microbiologist Ben Wolfe, the mouth of cheese maker Seana Doughty and the belly button of food writer Micael Pollans. The website Grist calls these people “cheeseparents.”
The cheese display is entitled “Selfmade.” The team describes it as “a series of ‘microbial sketches’, portraits reflecting an individual’s microbial landscape in a unique cheese.”
Why would they make these cheeses if they don’t expect people to eat them? They are part of an exhibit at the Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin called “Grow Your Own-Life After Nature. The exhibition is an exploration of synthetic biology, which is the application of engineering principals to biology.
According to the creators of the cheeses their hope is to start conversations about connections between our food, our bacteria, and ourselves. “By making cheese directly from the microbes on the body, we want to highlight these bacterial connections as well as to question and potentially expand the role of both odours and microbes in our lives,” Agapakis says.
A short film accompanies the project, explaining their processes of both cheese making and analysis, as well as providing interviews with the bacteria donors. It describes the way the microbial strains were identified and characterized using 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing and other microbiological techniques. The film also explains how the odors were characterized using headspace gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis. This process identified and quantified volatile organic compounds in each cheese.
According to the team, many of the stinkiest cheeses host species of bacteria that are closely related to the bacteria that create the smells of our armpits and feet. This knowledge is what led the scientist and the scent expert to choose cheese as their “model organism.”
We live in germ-filled bodies in a germ-phobic culture. In a statement describing their project, Agapakis and Tolaas asked the question, “Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies?” They think that viewing an exhibit of cheese made from human bacteria will make me appreciate my own microbes. I think it is more likely to turn me off of cheese.