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Biotech is advancing the fragrance industry

To produce perfumes today major companies shave shifted away from animal products. While this is perhaps driven by a desire to drive costs down (in a market valued at $35 billion globally), it is considered by many to be a move in the right direction. To see how the perfume manufacturing process has altered take a bottle of Channel No. 5. In the 1980s the perfume, which is on the high-end of the market, would have contained the oily excrement of sperm whales (a substance called ambergris). Today, a synthetic vegetable based material is used.

In order to streamline production more effectively and to create more consistent and robust processes several companies are turning to biotechnology and yeasts, Bioscience Technology reports. Yeasts can be genetically engineered to produce essential oils.

This follows in the footsteps of the food industry. In 2014 the first version of vanillin, a crucial component of vanilla produced by a yeast entered the food supply-chain. With the world of perfumery, the U.S. company Amyris is planning to launch fragrances derived from yeasts in 2017.

The use of yeasts to create fragrances stems from the work of scientists like Dr. Joerg Bohlmann (University of British Columbia), who used the single-celled microorganisms to produce sandalwood oil. This was undertaken by using a genetic extract of Santalum album (sandalwood tree). The results are published in The Plant Journal (“Heartwood-specific transcriptome and metabolite signatures of tropical sandalwood (Santalum album) reveal the final step of (Z)-santalol fragrance biosynthesis”).

The RNA material was analysed in the laboratory to reveal the key components of sandalwood oil. This example is part of the process of finding biochemical pathways of ‘essential oils’ as the basis of synthesizing them.

Once the genes are uncovered they can be processed via yeast, with the fungi acting as cellular factories. This is a complex process and the first wave of synthetic oils are slowly emerging. This is partly due to the need to genetically engineer the yeasts through a reconfiguration of their metabolic pathways. This is necessary because most of the fragrances are volatile compounds and would normally be toxic to the microbes.

Although work remains at an early stage it seems possible, especially with plant-based extracts, that more compounds that provide the characteristic scent to perfumes can be produced via biotechnology.

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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