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Making Cheeses with Starter Cultures Isolated from Human Bodies

Cheese cultured from Michael Pollan’s belly button fungus... Would you eat it?

Selfmade, 2013 is a collaborative project between synthetic microbiologist Christiana Agapakis and olfactory scientist Sissel Tolaas, making cheeses with starter cultures isolated from human bodies to foreground the microbiology of our food and bodies and speculate on the human origins of many unique cheese flavours.

Many of the stinkiest cheeses are hosts to species of fungi and bacteria closely related to the microbes responsible for the characteristic smells of human armpits or feet.

To probe this similitude, Agapakis and Tolaas inoculated swabs from celebrities’ hands, feet, noses, armpits, including Michael Pollan’s belly button and Olafur Eliasson’s tears, into fresh pasteurized, organic whole milk and incubated them overnight at 37° Celsius. The milk curds were then strained and pressed, yielding unique smelling fresh cheeses.

These cheeses are both scientific and artistic objects, designed not for eating, but challenging us to rethink our relationship with our microbes and our biotechnologies.

We live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of micro-organisms, but also in a cultural world that emphasizes total antisepsis. "Sanitized and pasteurised for your protection" is the antiseptic slogan of our times.

This provocative project encourages us to re-engage our senses to interact with the rich diversity of microbes around us, on us, and in us, probing questions around intimacy, selfhood, synthetic biology, and even cannibalism.

Yet, the fundamental question still remains: would you eat cheese cultured from the fungi on your foot? I’m not sure if I would either…!

Check out their websites for more weird and wonderful microbial biotech wizardry:



📸 Christina Agapakis, Sissel Tolaas, & Frank Paul


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