Highly prized by perfume makers, ambergris is a natural material that fetches thousands of dollars per pound. The high price tag is due to the material's rarity, which is a result of its source – the digestive system of sperm whales, from which it is expelled to float around the ocean and has led to it being dubbed "floating gold." While its cost and the endangered status of the sperm whale has caused many perfume manufacturers to turn to synthetic alternatives, the most popular of these is laborious to produce. Now a team of researchers has developed a method to sustainably produce large quantities of an ambergris alternative.
The most commonly used ambergris alternative is a synthetic organic compound called Ambroxan, which was first synthesized in 1950 and is marketed by perfume and flavor company Firmenich under the trade name Ambrox, (and by other names by other companies). It is synthesized from sclareol, a diterpene chemical compound found in the Clary sage plant. The problem is that Clary sage only produces sclareol in small quantities, and the compound is difficult to process and purify.
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Laurent Daviet and Michel Schalk at Firmenich managed to isolate the DNA from the Clary sage plant that produces the two enzymes needed for the chemical process that produces Ambrox. By genetically modifying Escherichia Coli (E. coli) bacteria with the Clary sage DNA, the researchers were able to reconstruct the sclareol biosynthetic pathway and cost-effectively produce large amounts of sclareol in bioreators.
The research will likely be of interest to perfume companies in the U.S. where use of ambergris has been banned since 1972. However, ambergris remains in use in other markets, such as France, where it continues to attract a high price. While the new bacteria-enabled bioengineered alternative may give the perfume industry a cheaper and more easily accessible option, it’s likely that some people will continue to dream of stumbling on a chunk of whale-blessed good luck on some remote beach.
The team's research was described in detail in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.