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Stinky cheese offers us a whiff of knowledge about our body’s bacteria

There’s something smelly about researcher Christina Agapakis’ recent work — which is just as she intended.

Emitting odors that range from fragrant to fetid are nearly a dozen one-of-a-kind, designer cheeses that Agapakis, a UCLA postdoctoral fellow, produced using bacteria from stinky feet, belly buttons and other parts of the human body as starter culture for the fermentation process.

“This is cheese not for eating but for smelling, and for thinking about our very personal connections to the microbial world,” said Agapakis, who earned her Ph.D. in 2011 from Harvard in biological and biomedical sciences. At UCLA, she works in the laboratory of professor Ann Hirsch in the department of molecular, cell and developmental biology in the College of Letters and Science, contributing to research on bacterial strains that could be put to work in agriculture to create natural fertilizer.

Agapakis produced cheese using human bacteria collected from belly buttons and tongues, among other sources. Photos courtesy of Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin.
But in the endeavor to make cheese from human bacteria, Agapakis is pointing to a disconnect between our culture’s general disdain for human bacteria and our appetite for a food with roots in bacteria and sometimes, oddly enough, smells that compare with the stinkiest of feet, like limburger cheese. This disconnect, she said, represents just how far we are from recognizing the intricate biological interrelationships that exist between human beings and all other living organisms.
Working in collaboration with Norwegian odor artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas, Agapakis collected bacteria donated by the likes of New York Times bestselling food-and-culture writer Michael Pollan, who provided belly button samplings; Marin County artisan cheesemaker Seana Doughty, who contributed tongue scrapings; and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who offered up his tears.

“Anyplace on the body that’s quite moist — creases where you hold bacteria — that’s where you get the most diversity of organisms suited for cheese-making,” Agapakis said.

The cheeses she created became the basis of “Selfmade,” an exhibit currently running in the Science Gallery of Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Described as “a microbial sketch of each donor’s unique microbial landscape,” "Selfmade" is part of a larger “Grow Your Own: Life After Nature” exhibition that seeks to promote new ways of thinking about and interacting with biology and the environment.

The human bacteria cheeses — which are named after the donors of their bacteria — look no different from the varieties you’d find at an upscale cheese store. But the prospect of biting into any of them would probably curdle your milk. In fact, visitors to the exhibit, which displays the cheeses along with bios and video interviews of each donor, are prohibited from taste-testing any of the cheese.

Agapakis used bacteria from her own mouth to produce cream cheese.
Agapakis, however, admits to tasting some herself, among them, Christina, a cheese that she cultured with bacteria from her own mouth and which is included in the exhibit. “It had just been strained and pressed and was very fresh. It didn’t have a very strong flavor, but it was fine. It just tasted like cheese.”

Agapakis previously explored similar themes in exhibitions she created for UCLA’s Art|Sci Center, where she is a fellow. Last year, she created “Bacterial Encounters,” which demonstrated how our concept of microbes — synonymous with rot, decay, infection and disease — is evolving in light of growing scientific recognition of microbial usefulness and diversity. In “Chemical Romance,” she explored our culture’s ideas about food and scents, and drew connections to history, psychology and the concept of love.   

Agapakis has become something of a scientific "cheese wiz" through her work on "Selfmade." She discovered, by isolating and characterizing the microbial strains for each donor’s bacteria using microbiological techniques and 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing, that human bacteria are very closely related to cheese-making bacteria. She also sampled and characterized the odor of each resulting cheese by using headspace gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis, a technique used to identify and/or quantify volatile organic compounds present in a sample.

“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,” Agapakis noted.

A visitor to the exhibit takes a whiff of one of the human bacteria cheeses.
The cheeses in "Selfmade" aren’t exempt of stench. Some are redolent of cheeses like limburger, the odor of which has been compared to gym-rat B.O., flatulence and smelly feet. Yet limburger’s foul aroma hasn’t prevented cheese lovers from enjoying it to the extent that it rates as one of most popular stinky cheeses in the world.

Neuroscientists studying human olfaction have found, Agapakis said, that our perceptions of smells as “good” or “bad” is highly subjective. In one experiment, researchers put a molecule that’s commonly present in cheese in a test tube, told their research subjects it smelled like cheese and asked them to take a whiff. “That smells delicious,” some responded. But when the researchers presented the same molecule with a warning that it smelled like vomit, there were responses like, “This is terrible. I feel like retching.’”

The fact that the cheeses in “Selfmade” are made from human bacteria upset people, even though they look like regular cheese. “I think people are grossed out by bodies and their smells and the ‘biologicalness’ of them,” she said.

What’s more, our culture emphasizes deodorizing, sanitizing and altogether eliminating unacceptable odors and the bacteria that cause them, Agapakis said. People feel threatened by their own bodies.

But living in a sterile world only “paves the way for more dangerous strains to come in and take over,” she said. And there’s evidence that having a strong community of “good” bacteria in your body can actually help keep out more dangerous strains.

“We want people to be more accepting of bacteria in our bodies, have a better relationship with our bodies and the environment,” she said. “People can be healthier and have a more positive relationship with the whole world if we can live in peace with bacteria.”
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