On Germs And Human Cheese: Bacteri-Yum?

I’m looking at a cheese. It’s a natural rind cheese, a lovely soft grey streaked with dark striations. Flanking it are three others: fresh, young farmhouse curds, a golden yellow whey cream cheese, and a hard, mushroom-coloured washed rind beauty. These look like any regular, handmade cheeses: so what are they doing in the Science Gallery at Dublin’s Trinity College? Well, they’re here because they’ve been made using bacteria taken from human bodies. The natural rind cheese was made using bacteria from the toes of a Harvard University microbiologist; the farmhouse cheese, using scrapings from Michael Pollan’s bellybutton. Ummm, yeah.

This project, aptly entitled “Selfmade,” is part of the Grow Your Own exhibition, a conceptual comment on the future of synthetic biology; for any non-science heads out there, this is an exciting but scary field which fuses engineering with the manipulation of biological systems at a genetic level. This can mean the design and creation of new biological parts and systems, or the re-designing of existing natural systems so that they fit new purposes. Synthetic biology has wide-reaching implications for a myriad of disciplines and, ethically speaking, remains a source of much controversy. I wonder what the human cheese smells like.

I’ve always been a bit of a science freak, and particularly where bacteria and moulds are concerned. My mother once caught me deliberately cultivating white mould on a slice of bread hidden in my wardrobe. I was five. Years later, learning about the effects of bacteria and moulds on the ripening of cheeses helped me realise how incredible the entire cheesemaking process is. The idea of each cheese being its own mini-universe, populated with billions of microscopic organisms doing their own microscopic thang is just too cool. Like The Big Bang Theory’s Bernadette Rostenkowski says,

“I’m pretty passionate about science. I remember the first time I looked through a microscope and saw millions of tiny microorganisms; it was like a whole other universe. If I wanted to, I could wipe it out with my thumb like a god.”

Bacteria play an almost inestimable role in cheese-making; without them, we wouldn’t have cheese at all. Their first job is to munch through the lactose (the natural sugar in milk) and turn it into lactic acid. This acid, along with rennet, makes the milk coagulate, helpfully separating into curds and whey.

Later, bacteria play a very special part in cheese maturation. Most maturing rooms are home to very specific bacteria, which cheese makers are fiercely protective over. The little dudes (the bacteria, that is, not the cheese makers) modify proteins, fats and sugars in the cheese, and are responsible for much of its personality, from flavour and texture right down to whether the cheese has holes or not. (Random fact: holes in cheeses are called “eyes,” and are caused when bacteria produce carbon dioxide.) If you think about it,when you look at a whole washed-rind cheese, you’re not actually seeing the cheese at all. You’re seeing the city that bacteria have built on that cheese, a funky force field that encases it to protect it from pathogens, the baddies of the bacterial realm.

Moulds are also freaky and cool, and can have just as much of an impact on a cheese. Cheesy moulds include bloomy rinds, like those on Camembert or Brie, natural rinds, and the lovely blue-green veins running through blue cheeses. Some of these cheeses grow natural surface moulds. Others have selected moulds added into them, or sprayed onto their exteriors; still others, like Roquefort, have tiny pockets of air needled into them, allowing the natural spores present in the cellar (or in the case of Roquefort, the caves) to wriggle inside and get to work. My ex would never eat blue cheese because he couldn’t stomach the idea of putting mould in his mouth, no matter how edible or delicious. I thought this absurd, but I tried not to complain because, y’know, I got to eat all of the blue cheese, so silver linings and all that.

I have a very black-and-white view of bacteria. Cheese germs = intriguing; I must learn more, and perhaps start planning a new cheeseboard. Bus germs = terrifying; I must retreat in sweaty-palmed unease. It’s like Giles tells Buffy when she needs consolation, “It’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and… everybody lives happily ever after.” I know Giles was speaking facetiously, but that’s basically my impression of the microbial realm. (Admittedly, I will also use any excuse to reference ’90s television.)

So, yeah, I like bacteria and mould when it comes to cheese production, or those good guys that I know are swimming around in my digestive system, but I can be a terrible wimp about the baddies. I can spend all day talking about how cool and weird and interesting bacteria are, but then the guy sitting next to me on the bus sneezes, or some kid in a shop looks at me like she might, just might touch me with her sticky little hands, and suddenly I feel suspiciously like Niles Crane. Don’t even get me started on the magazines in doctors’ surgeries.

All of this leaves me in a weird position where the human cheese is concerned. The five-year-old science freak and the twenty-seven-year-old cheese nerd in me are both fascinated; the part of me who doesn’t like to hold the poles on the train (which is a serious concern, given my lack of balance) is freaked out. Why make cheese from human bodies? Who would want to eat that? I like Michael Pollan, but as far as his bellybutton fluff goes I am very definitely NOT INTERESTED. As it transpires, this cheese is (thankfully) not for consumption.

The project is meant as a comment on our increasingly-germaphobic society; our bodies are unique collections of microbes, much like each individual cheese. The co-creators of Selfmade, Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas, wanted to explore whether improved knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food could increase social acceptance of the bacteria in our bodies. “We live in a world which is sterilised, sanitised; homogenised for your ‘protection’,” says Tolaas, cynical air quotes accompanying the latter word. “By doing that, we are removing a lot of important information… Bacteria all have purposes; maybe not all of them are healthy, but maybe we’re removing too many of the healthy ones.” Selfmade is designed to make us think about our constant connection to the bacterial realm, and about how we need micro-organisms to survive.

Once I hear this, I think, yeah. I agree. I do think we’ve all become a bit too worried about germs these days: as someone who grew up sharing every ice-cream with her golden retriever, lick for lick, I can testify to the fact that our immune systems are much, much more powerful than we give them credit for. After much puzzling, nose-wrinkling and head-scratching, I conclude that I like the Selfmade cheese project. Sure it’s weird, but it’s clever, (which is basically how I like my friends.) Maybe I, with my mildly crazy germ-based freakouts, am exactly the sort of person this project is meant for.

I’ll still take a raincheck on the human cheese, though.

What about you? Are you grossed out by the Selfmade project, or does it have your inner nerd intrigued? Leave a comment below!

[All images featured via Shutterstock.]