Microbial Perfume

Rather than rely on plant-derived products, biotech companies are engineering bacteria and yeast to produce ingredients for fragrances.

Jul 23, 2012
Edyta Zielinska

A number of biotech companies are looking to supplement plant-derived fragrances by engineering bacteria and yeast to produce commercial scents, potentially changing how the industry sources its products.

Plant sources can be unreliable: they are often susceptible to the whims of corrupt governments that can make it difficult to acquire the plants or to natural disasters that lead to supply shortages. Although the ability to produce scents in large quantities is still in development, a number of biotech companies including Allylix, Isobionics, and Evolva, are hoping to create plant-derived scents using engineered microbes.

So far, the only microbe-made fragrances available are the citrus molecules that smell like Valencia oranges and grapefruit peel, as well as vanilla. But companies plan to focus on more rare and difficult-to-acquire smells next. “If you have a rare compound that you can only isolate from a particular orchid that grows in the swamps of Florida, then only a handful of people in the world can have access to that,” Kalib Kersh, an analyst at consulting firm Lux Research, told Chemical & Engineering News. If such a fragrance could be engineered in the lab, it could be produced at much larger quantities without harvesting the rare plant. (Hat tip to Wired Science.)