More and more, scientists and nutritionists acknowledge the importance of microbes within the human body–what’s known as the microbiome. Whether it’s in our stomach or on our skin, we rely on the intricate interplay of hundreds of different types of living bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and archaea to stay healthy. So even though we’ll never see it and combined, it accounts for all of 7 ounces of our body weight, we owe this defensive, supportive structure a huge gratitude (yet many of us attack it by dousing ourselves in Purell.)
Microbes also play a role in creating many of our staple fermented foods, like cheese. And so researcher Christina Agapakis and professor Sissel Tolaas teamed up on a synthetic biology project called Selfmade, a collection of 11 cheeses, produced not from random starter cultures, but the microbes within the bodies of other people. They’re what the team calls “microbial sketches,” or portraits of someone’s microbiome, drawn in cheese.
“We wanted people to think about the body and about microbes in new ways,” Agapakis explains, “to consider how different contexts can shape our understanding and emotions about bacteria so significantly.”
Most apropos would be a cheese produced from the hugely influential locavore professor and writer, Michael Pollan, who volunteered his belly button be swabbed for the project. Other samples were volunteered from a nose, feet, and even tears before they were spread onto petri dishes to grow. Eventually, these microbes were harvested and used as starter cultures to produce extremely personal cheese that were placed into a gallery expedition.
“To paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss, these aren’t cheeses for eating but for thinking,” Agapakis tells Co.Design. “While we’ve both tried small amounts of younger cheeses (they just taste like cheese!), the cheeses that we have in the gallery are not intended for human consumption.”
When I ask Agapakis if it would be possible to commercialize a line of celebrity cheeses–to scale these cultures en masse, much like we see for Keifer or commercial yogurt production–in order to produce a Gaga gruyere or a Kanye colby, she’s hesitant to answer given that she has zero interest in commercialization.
“I think for real cheese production for eating there are so many complicated issues involved around microbes in terms of the flavor, how well the bacteria are adapted to life in milk, and there are of course many regulatory and safety issues involved,” she says.
But if you look beyond the red tape, and focus on the science itself? The microbiomes of our feet resemble the microbiomes of cheese. So while you may not be tasting Pollan’s actual toejam any time soon, there’s a reason why good cheese stinks like feet.