Have you ever been offered a fancy cheese that smelled more like a used gym sock than something edible? American odour scientist, Sissel Tolaas, and researcher, Christina Agapakis, took this idea and ran with it, with their project Synthetic Aesthetics. The duo used bacteria isolated from human hands, feet, noses, and armpits to generate cheese.
Many cheeses, like beer, wine, and yoghurt, are the product of fermentation. Fermentation occurs when microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria convert carbohydrates such as sugar into alcohols, gasses, and acids to generate energy in the absence of oxygen.
One common cheese-making type of bacterium, Lactobacillus, breaks down lactose, the primary milk sugar, to lactic acid. This results in lowering the pH of the milk, which as pointed out in a previous post, causes coagulation and solidification into cheese. The work of microorganisms in cheese also results in the creation of many other byproducts that give cheeses their unique smell, texture, and flavour profiles.
For example, the bacterium, Propionibacterium freudenreichii, generates carbon dioxide gas in the process of making Swiss cheese and causes its characteristic holes. Penicillium roqueforti, which is related to the fungus that helps produce the antibiotic, penicillin, gives blue cheese it’s distinct aroma and look.
Microorganisms that use fermentation are found everywhere. Tolaas and Agapakis realised that the human body shared many characteristics with the environments for creating cheese. On a hot day or before a hot date, your armpits may be just as warm and moist as an industrial cheese incubator. Furthermore, cheese-making bacteria like Lactobacillus are common inhabitants in the mammalian gut.
With this information, they isolated bacteria from hands, feet, noses, and armpits and added them to whole milk to serve as starter cultures…..
scienceandfooducla blog: Read more about the results here
While these bacterial cultures may not serve as the basis of a new type of artisan cheese, Agapakis notes:
“These cheeses are scientific as well as artistic objects, challenging us to rethink our relationship with our bacteria and with our biotechnology. . . . The cross-over between bacteria found on cheese and on human skin offers a tantalizing hint at how our bacterial symbiotes have come to be part of our culinary cultures.
“In the face of diminishing resources, we are reminded that untapped reservoirs, which may be literally under our noses, might contain hidden treasures that could change the way we generate and produce food.”
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