A synthetic biologist explores the intersection of culture, art, and microbes -- and cheese too.
Christina Agapakis is a rising star among the new generation of biology researchers. Trained in the science of custom-building organisms known as synthetic biology, the UCLA researcher likes to think about the way her field intersects with culture and industry more broadly.
Case in point: Through a program of the BioBricks Foundation, she worked with artist Sissel Tolaas to create cheeses cultured with the microbes that help produce our body odor. The project highlights the meaning that humans assign to the productions of the invisible world of bacteria. And Agapakis wants us to rethink our relationships with the microbial communities that live in and around us.
"Re-contextualizing these ostensibly 'bad' smells, we saw that when the odor is in cheese it smells good and it's a sign of culture and good taste. But the same smell on a body is disgusting," she told me an interview for our most recent issue. "By making cheese using bacteria from the body, we're showing that we should be able to think about the microbes in our lives in different ways."