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People Are Making 'Human Cheese' Using Belly-Button Bacteria

It's true, and it's utterly disgusting.

Science Gallery

If you saw this sign at a science museum, would your instinct be to leg it in the other direction or lick your chops and head on in?

Personally, my gut would be screaming "run." But this past Friday, visitors to the Science Gallery in Dublin paid money for the privilege of smelling cheeses made from human bacteria. And not just any bacteria: The germs were sourced from several prominent personalities such as food writer Michael Pollan and Olafur Eliasson of New York City waterfalls fame. Each of these luminaries took the time to massage their noses, armpits, bellybuttons or toes with sterile swabs that they sent back to the museum. There, scientists used the bacteria to produce fuzzy, off-white cheeses that revoltingly "smell, and taste, of the body odour of the donor," reports Dezeen, which has all the necessary close-up photos of the stuff.

Regarding those tasting notes, you'll just have to take the word of the duo behind this stomach-churning endeavor, chemist Christina Agapakis and odor expert Sissel Tolaas, because museum visitors were not actually allowed to eat the cheese. The project was meant more as a way to explore synthetic biology and the far reaches of our species' microbial landscape. "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," say Tolaas and Agapakis. "Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies?"

This grimmest of food experiments is not the only eldritch thing brewing at the Science Gallery. There's also an exhibit devoted to how human placentas could be used to deliver dolphin babies, which one visitor reports "freaks the hell out of me." And don't forget this other one showing how you could color your own poop in the interests of science; it actually helps diagnose stomach ailments such as ulcers and worms. But people seem to be reserving their most intense disgust for the human cheese, at least to judge from this comment card:

Top image of what's in all probability Michael Pollan's naval cheese courtesy of the Science Gallery

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.