The perfume world is facing a crisis. Committing to the best materials means being subject to all kinds of factors, like politics, natural disasters, and climate change. Getting certain luxury oils like jasmine, vanilla, and sandalwood is becoming more difficult and very expensive. Even a scent as classic and simple as a rose can be hard to get, depending on the year. A poor growing season or other event can cause the price of a kilo to skyrocket from $10 to $100. To compete, manufacturers are turning to more unique methods.
Ginkgo BioWorks is located in Boston, and in their labs, they are creating genetically-engineered scents. In partnership with a centuries-old French fragrance company (Robertet), engineers are hard at work replicating classic scents by using yeast microbes. It’s almost like brewing beer, but for smells.
One of their most exciting projects is replicating scents from flowers and plants that have gone extinct. They have just recently gone through more than five million specimens from Harvard’s herbarium, picking up an extinct Hawaiian hibiscus and olive bush. These plants recently died out, and Gingko wants to go even further back. They’re looking to get their hands on wildflowers preserved in permafrost so that they can copy the tiny fragments of DNA to craft perfumes.
How does this work exactly? Gingko looks for molecules called “terpenes,” which are hydrocarbon compounds that are responsible for scents like citrus, mint, and so on. Extracting these terpenes results in a perfume that is similar, but not identical to the original plant. It’s impossible to get the scent completely right because terpenes aren’t the only genes that play a role in scent, but it will be very close and enough to interest buyers.
Gingko’s methods are enough to interest companies as well, and in the past year, they’ve racked up $100 million from investors. Making scents in a lab is cost-effective and provides the much-needed reliability companies are struggling with. Synthetic scents are not subject to droughts, war, or politics. And, unlike with naturally-produced scents, you can experience what an Ice Age wildflower smelled like.