Installation, 2013

Christina Agapakis (US) & Sissel Tolaas (NO)

Click here to listen Christina Agapakis discuss Selfmade on Newstalk's science radio show 'Futureproof'.

The growing awareness of human microbial ecology and its influence on health is leading to wider understanding of the body as a superorganism; a collection of human and microbial cells that interact in numerous and unexpected ways. In this paradigm, notions of self and other, and of health and disease, are shifting to accommodate more ecological concepts of diversity and symbiosis.

Selfmade is a series of ‘microbial sketches’, portraits reflecting an individual’s microbial landscape in a unique cheese. Each cheese is crafted from starter cultures sampled from the skin of a different person. Isolated microbial strains were identified and characterised using microbiological techniques and 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing. Like the human body, each cheese has a unique set of microbes that metabolically shape a unique odour. Cheese odours were sampled and characterised using headspace gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis, a technique used to identify and/or quantify volatile organic compounds present in a sample. A short film documenting the process of cheesemaking, along with interviews of the bacterial donors accompanies the cheese display and the data from microbiological and odour analysis. Visitors to the gallery are exposed to the diversity of life in their food and bodies, and a diversity of visions for future synthetic biologies.

This project explores possibilities for a relational synthetic biology through the practices of cheesemaking. Cheesemaking involves a complex coordination of microbial life, promoting the growth of beneficial Lactobacillus strains that protect milk from more dangerous spoilage and the ecologies of microbes on the rind that create the prized flavours of different cheese varieties.

Those involved with synthetic biology are intent on transforming microbes into the useful machines of a new bioeconomy. In the short term, this is accomplished by isolating engineered strains and limiting microbial interactions in stainless steel reactors. However, the appeal of potential medium-term applications in the production of foods, environmental biosensors, or ‘smart’ living therapeutics demonstrates the power of thinking beyond the bioreactor. Such approaches require addressing ecological concerns about the safety and complexity of interactions with other organisms, highlighting the need for a more relational synthetic biology. Understanding the biological networks inside cells as well as the networks of organisms, regulatory systems, economic structures, and cultural practices that shape the life of an engineered organism in the world will be crucial to the development of synthetic biologies in the long term.

Artist's Statement

We not only live in a biological world surrounded by rich communities of microorganisms, but in a cultural world that emphasises total antisepsis. 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? How do humans 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?