A new art exhibit at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin showcases cheese cultured from an unusual source — bacteria from people's bodies.

UCLA microbiologist Christina Agapakis was asked to collaborate with artists in Europe to create the cheese, which is cultured using bacteria gathered from various sites on human bodies.

Research team

Sissel Tolaas (left) and Christina Agapakis check the aroma of some of the cheese they produced. (Courtesy Science Gallery)

"So we had donors give us cotton swabs from different parts of their bodies and then I, in the lab, grew those cultures on petri dishes and then took the bacteria from the petri dishes and put it in the milk," Agapakis explains.

She says cheese fans might not realize that many of the bacteria types prized in traditional cheese-making are the same as those found on the human body.

"Between the toes, that's where you have lot of similarities with cheese bacteria," Agapakis says. "Toes were a prime location for swabbing. Armpits were another source we were interested in."
    
The cheeses, which are named after their donors, are intended to spark discussion but not meant to be eaten. Despite that, the cheeses have made people more than a little squeamish.

She says that's part of the point — to figure out what disgusts people and why.

"I think our boundaries change a lot. And it's different in different cultures where you have different acceptance of stinky cheeses … or different levels of cleanliness that are 'normal,'" Agapakis says.