BY TANYA LEWIS
07.19.12 2:10 PM
The next time you savor the sweet flavor of vanilla ice cream or the fresh orange scent of a hand soap, you may have bacteria to thank. Fragrance companies are now looking to lab-engineered bacteria and yeast to produce fragrances normally derived from plants, reports Chemical & Engineering News. The story is an interesting look at how the somewhat secretive fragrance industry is evolving.
For centuries, humans have worked to harness good smells. Bottling a scent required painstakingly extracting plant oils from crops often grown in far-flung countries. The commercial fragrance market, which is responsible for the scents in everything from food and drinks to cleaning products and perfume, relies on a steady supply of these oils. But a natural disaster or corrupt government practice can easily dry up a source.
In 2010, there was a shortage of patchouli oil, a fragrance used in incense and personal and home care products. Rainy weather in Indonesia caused a poor harvest of the shrub that produces the oil, and volcanic eruptions and earthquakes exacerbated supply problems.
Now, using microbes to manufacture these scents is becoming a sweeter possibility. Bitter orange, grapefruit, rose and sandalwood are some of the hardest oils to obtain naturally. Thanks to advances in biotechnology, some of these scents can now be made in a petri dish. Biotech firms like Allylix, Isobionics and Evolva are genetically engineering bacteria and yeast that can produce plant oils by fermenting sugars. The companies claim they can make virtually any plant-derived molecule, it’s just a matter of scaling up production.
Some of the first products being outsourced to microbes are the citrus molecules valencene (found in the peel of Valencia oranges) and nootkatone (found in grapefruit peel), commonly used in fruit-flavored drinks and perfumes. And there’s no need to go to Tahiti for vanilla: Vanillin scent, which is already produced synthetically, can also be made by microbial fermentation. Soon, we could be living in a world of microbe-made smells.
Compared to producing scents by chemical synthesis, microbial manufacture could be more eco-friendly, and still be labelled natural. And your nose will never know the difference.