‘Human Cheese’ is Made From Celebrity Armpit and Belly Button Bacteria

A light-minded duo of an artist and biologist has created five types of ‘human cheese’ from celebrities’ armpit and belly button bacteria.

Ever had the feeling that some more mature varieties of cheese smell – and sorry, probably taste – like an armpit? Or even a belly button …? Well, it turns out that’s no coincidence. The bacteria found in our armpits and belly buttons are very similar to the ones used to make cheese. So similar actually, that real cheese has been made with them.

The project, which is aptly titled ‘Selfmade,’ is the brainchild of synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis and artist Sissel Tolaas. The pair joined forces with support from the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University to combine art, engineering, and biotechnology in an innovative project to produce ‘human cheese.’

Does it really smell like an armpit? Probably, and that’s no coincidence.

Milk is transformed into curds by a special starter culture or bacteria, which determines whether the cheese will mature into a nice cheddar or a bit of gouda. It turns out that many of the bacteria used to make cheese are similar to bacteria encountered on our skin. And indeed, that’s why sometimes the scent of stinky feet and stinky cheese somewhat overlap. The similarity is so big actually that some of the bacteria on the human body also has the power to turn fresh milk into cheese. And that was used to make the ‘cheese selfies’ that are the end product of the project.

So how does one turn the human microbiome into a chunk of cheddar? Scientists and cheesemakers at the London biolab Open Cell collected bacteria from the celebrities’ bodily crannies, like armpits, ears, noses, and bellybuttons. Then, the bacteria was grown in petri dishes until suitable strains could be harvested and selected for cheesemaking.

Cheesemaking at Open Cell. Photo by Mishko Papic

The exhibit may not be for everyone, but the bizarre exploration into human repulsion has definitely won some fans.

“It’s not gross, it’s art,” wrote Great British Baking Show runner-up Ruby Tandoh, who submitted a swab of bacteria from her face to be cultivated into Stilton cheese.

Bacteria is taken from baker and food writer Ruby Tandoh

Suggs, the singer for the ska band Madness, best known in the U.S. for its 1982 hit ‘Our House,’ chose to be immortalized in cheddar.

Bacteria is taken from the ear of Madness frontman Suggs.

Rapper Professor Green, who admitted he truly hates cheese, insisted his belly-button bacteria be turned into mozzarella, the only cheese he can almost tolerate.

British rapper Professor Green: ‘Mozzarella is the only cheese I eat – I can’t stand the smell of cheese’

Alex James, bassist for the band Blur chose Cheshire cheese and celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal decided to go for comté.

Musician and cheesemaker Alex James (Blur): ‘I remember a cheesemaker tell me that you need bacteria to make cheese and it can come from quite unusual places.’
The pile includes Cheddar cheese made with James’s bacteria.

This is not the first time the duo has collaborated on a cheesy project. In 2013, they made 11 types of human cheese, one of from the belly button bacteria of journalist and activist Michael Pollan.

Interestingly, that project found that the cheese made from human bacteria did not smell like the person that it came from. So cheese made from, say, Professor Green is unlikely to smell like him.

“People have a mixture of repulsion and attraction to cheese,” Agapakis told The Verge in 2013, adding that “this gives us a chance to have a really interesting conversation about bacteria and odors, and why they might gross people out.”

It hasn’t yet been determined whether the Selfmade cheese wheels are safe for human consumption. So, sorry fans, you might have to wait for a new project until that is clarified.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


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