The Sweet Smell of Synthetic Whale Ambergris0

Rachel Nuwer | Wed Apr 11 2012

In Moby Dick, Melville scoffs that “fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale.” Following the example of the Ancient Egyptians and Chinese, the fragrance industry has employed this essence, called ambergris, in perfume making for years.

But here’s the hitch: the stuff fetches up to $20,000 per kilogram, yet ambergris is nothing but vomit from endangered sperm whales. When the animals consume sharp objects like shells or squid beaks, their guts coat the hazardous items in a sticky substance to protect their organs. The whales regurgitate the waxy, dullish grey balls, which can weigh up to 100 pounds. Eventually, these globs wash ashore where harvesters nit-pick beaches in search of the valuable regurgitates.

Given the cost and the endangered species red flag, and most perfume makers around the world have phased the whale-derived ambergris out in favor of a synthetic replacement derived from balsam fir trees, called cis-abienol. The production of this material, called Ambrox, is costly and often hit-or-miss, though. Typically, synthesizing it in the lab yields around 70 percent byproduct and only 30 percent harvestable material.

Now, researchers from the University of British Columbia claim to have a fix for the problem. To do this, they investigated the genetic components of fir tree resin. “It’s a very complex mixture,” said biologist Joerg Bohlmann, the senior author on the paper published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry describing the new method. “We dug deep into the genome and mined it for the part of the script that codes for the biocatalyst that makes this compound,” he explained.

Bohlmann and colleagues found the gene responsible for producing cis-abienol, then transferred it into some yeast cells, a microorganism often used to grow high value natural products, like ingredients for malaria medication. The yeast accepted the new gene as part of its own biochemical machinery, churning out cis-abienol as if it were part of the yeast’s normal regime.

Ambergris and its synthetic counterpart’s uses in perfume are two-fold. Though freshly vomited ambergris is described having a pungent marine, fecal-like odor, after the substance floats around in the ocean for months or even years, it develops a more appealing sweet, earthy scent valued by perfumeries. In addition to its olfactory charms, it’s also used as a “fixative,” or the endnote of expensive perfumes. “With cheap perfumes, half an hour later all the good stuff is gone and it’s evaporated before the night gets interesting,” Bohlmann said. “Compounds like ambergris are able to retain fragrance on the skin in a complex form over a long period of time.”

For those companies still using ambergris from whales, the process of finding the coveted flotsam on Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean shorelines is extremely time consuming. There is also the fear that ambergris might encourage sperm whale poaching since the product can be found in the animal’s intestines. Given ambergris’ high market value, it’s “certainly is not a disincentive for hunting whales,” Bohlmann said.

But with the new method, he thinks that this threat may be alleviated. Companies are interested in securing a clean, safe and dependable source of cis-abienol in order to manufacture Ambrox, and Bohlmann said the business opportunities for selling the technology are “substantial.”

In the larger scheme of things, producing cis-abienol from yeast cells is yet another example of science’s ability to produce sustainable bio-products. Though Bohlmann is not substituting cis-abienol for compounds being produced from fossil fuels, his technology uses the same line of research that is currently phasing out products dependent upon petro-chemistry or limited natural resources.

“The next time you’re asked ‘Do you know that there might be whale barf in your perfume?’” Bohlmann said, “You could answer, ‘Well, no, there’s a plant product in my perfume produced through a biological process that is very clean and sustainable!”