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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Science Note: Synthetic Ambergris

Air Date: Week of September 21, 2012

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Ambergris has been a key ingredient in fine perfumes for centuries. (Peter Kaminski)

Ambergris is regurgitated by Sperm whales and valued by perfumers. But natural ambergris could soon be replaced by a laboratory-made alternative.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth - I'm Steve Curwood. Just ahead - the tale of a bird that fills a useful environmental role - yet looks weird and is widely despised. First this note on emerging science from Mary Bates.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

BATES: For centuries, perfumers have relied on a substance with the poetic name of ambergris to help fragrances stay on people’s skin longer. But ambergris has less than poetic origins: it’s nothing more than vomit from sperm whales. Now scientists are closing in on a synthetic alternative that will leave whales out of the perfume-making business.

When whales consume sharp objects like seashells or squid beaks, their guts coat the items in a protective, sticky substance. They regurgitate the waxy, gray balls and the gobs wash ashore – on coasts from the Bahamas to Australia, where harvesters manually collect them.

Collecting ambergris is time-intensive and there are fears that demand may encourage poaching of the endangered whales, which have intestines full of the stuff. But now, researchers from the University of British Columbia have identified a gene in balsam fir trees that could lead to the production of synthetic ambergris.

The gene enables the fir tree to produce a compound called cis-abienol, which has properties similar to ambergris. Scientists transferred the gene into yeast cells, which were then able to produce the compound quickly and efficiently.

This technique could produce an ambergris alternative that’s less expensive and more sustainable. And the fragrance industry is betting that ambergris by any other name will smell just as sweet. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Mary Bates.

[SCIENCE NOTE THEME]

 

Links

Abstract in the Journal of Biological Chemistry

 

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