A collaborative project with Sissel Tolaas for Synthetic Aesthetics: a project run by the University of Edinburgh and Stanford University to bring together synthetic biologists, designers, artists and social scientists to explore collaborations between synthetic biology, art and design.
NOTHING STINKS BUT THINKING MAKES IT SO
We live in biological world completely surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but often in a cultural world that emphasizes total antisepsis. But
pasteurised for your protection is the antiseptic symbol of sensory death. Because
not all smells and bacteria can be pleasant, the consequences of hyper–sanitation could
be that we decide to have none at all. Smells, bacteria, and bacteria that produce smells
surround us all the time; chemical detection is an ancient biological communication tool
used by bacteria and animals alike. Smells and bacteria are a crucial component in defining,
understanding of and orienting in any environment.
The intersection of our interests in smell and microbial communities led us to focus on cheese as a
model organism. 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. Can knowledge and tolerance of bacterial cultures in our food
improve tolerance of the bacteria on our bodies or in other parts of our life? How do
human cultures cultivate and value bacterial cultures on cheeses and fermented foods?
How will synthetic biology change with a better understanding of how species of bacteria
work together in nature as opposed to the pure cultures of the lab?
Will we be able to re–engineer bacterial communities as readily as we can add or delete genes to and from E. coli? How will synthetic biology change our relationship to the microbial communities that surround us?
We were fascinated by the similarities between cheese and human microbiodiversity
and curious about the historic origin of cheese microflora. Given the physicality of
cheesemaking, we speculated on the human origins of many of the unique cheese flavors.
To explore this hypothesis and to foreground the microbiology of our food and bodies, we
sought out to make cheeses with starter cultures isolated from the human body. Swabs from
hands, feet, noses, and armpits were inoculated into fresh, pasteurized, organic whole milk
and incubated overnight at 37° Celsius. The milk curds were then strained and pressed,
yielding unique smelling fresh cheeses. Eight cheeses were produced in total for further
study, with bacterial origins from the bodies of the Synthetic Aesthetics team.
These cheeses are scientific as well as artistic objects, challenging us to rethink our
relationship with our bacteria and with our biotechnology. For more information and data from the analysis of the cheese microbes and volatiles
you can read the PDF of my thesis chapter about this project here.
Our cheeses and our analysis captured only a small fraction of the microbes that
live on the human body. We are continuing to explore the skin ecosystem with Bacterially.