They say the smelliest cheese is the best cheese, so the latest batch created by a scientist and scent expert could be top notch – if you like the stench of belly button and toe jam.
Scientist Christina Agapakis and scent expert Sissel Tolaas have used bacteria from the human foot, belly button and armpit to create a variety of cheeses as part of a project called Selfmade.
The project debuted at an exhibition in Dublin, Ireland about synthetic biology. The team says that Selfmade is a series of “microbial sketches,” portraits reflecting an individual’s microbial landscape in a unique cheese.
Each of the cheeses are crafted from starter cultures samples from the skin of a different person, and are then identified and characterized using microbiological techniques and 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing.
Agapakis and Tolaas say that each of the cheeses have a unique set of microbes that help shape a unique odor. The odors were sampled and characterized using headspace gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis, which is a technique used to identify and quantify volatile organic compounds present in a sample.
“We not only live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but in a cultural world that emphasizes total antisepsis,” the team said in a statement. “The intersection of our interests in smell and microbial communities led us to focus on cheese as a ‘model organism’.”
They said that many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of bacteria closely related to the bacteria responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits and 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,” say Agapakis and Tolaas.
Agapakis told Dezeen that everyone 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 flavor cheese. Selfmade features eleven cheeses in total, made from bacterial cultures harvested from the skin of artists, scientists, anthropologists, and cheese makers using sterile cotton swabs that were sent to the donors.
The scientist said that each of the cheeses smell and taste of the body odor of the donor. She also said they discovered that cheese and smelly body parts share similar microbial populations.
“Nobody will eat these cheeses, but we hope that the cheese can inspire new conversations about our relationship to the body and to our bacteria,” Agapakis told Dezeen. “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 odors and microbes in our lives.”