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Scientists discover cheaper and more sustainable perfume compound

By Andrew McDougall , 10-Apr-2012
Last updated on 10-Apr-2012 at 12:59 GMT

Scientists have identified a gene in balsam fir trees that could facilitate cheaper and more sustainable production of plant-based fixatives used in perfumes, reducing the need for ambergris, an animal byproduct.

The discovery and related technology was made by researcher form the University of British Columbia, led by Professor Joerg Bohlmann and postdoctoral research associate Philipp Zerbe at UBC's Michael Smith Laboratories, and was published in the April 6 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

"We've now discovered that a gene from balsam fir is much more efficient at producing such natural compounds, which could make production of this bio-product less expensive and more sustainable," says Bohlmann.

Reduction of animal byproduct use

The new find means that the fragrance industry can reduce its use of ambergris; a scented compound derived from the regurgitation of the endangered sperm whale.

"The use of ambergris in the fragrance industry has been controversial," says Bohlmann, who is a professor of Botany and Forest Sciences.

"First of all, it's an animal byproduct and the use of such in cosmetics has been problematic, not to mention it comes from the sperm whale, an endangered species."

When sperm whales consume sharp objects, such as seashells and fish bones, their gut produces a sticky substance to protect their digestive organs which is then regurgitated, and the vomit, reacting with seawater, turns into rock-like objects that wash ashore.

Ambergis; a costly venture

This is collected and refined for its fixative properties, forming ambergris, and is added to high-end perfumes to help the fragrance stay on the skin longer.

Even though much of the ambergris approved for use today is manually collected along the shorelines of known sperm whale habitats in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and in the Caribbean, it is still a costly venture, according to the researchers.

The new discovery is now being commercialized through UBC's Industry Liaison Office.

The research was supported by Genome Canada, Genome British Columbia, and Genome Alberta through the PhytoMetaSyn Project, and through grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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