What's the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the words “designer fragrance”?
Your initial thoughts may be of expensive scents, bottled elaborately and decorated with a famous name, but it’s unlikely that yeast will cross your mind. However, a team of scientists at Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, USA have recently been culturing perfumes that smell of roses using genetically engineered microorganisms. The yeast produces a scent that is the same as rose oil – smelling very similar to any unassuming nose.
The microbial concoction begins at the genetic level. First, the team have to identify all of the enzymes in roses that produce the compounds responsible for scent - forming the biosynthetic pathway. Then, once the pathway has been established, they sequence the genes coding for the enzymes and insert the genes into yeast genomes. Strains can then be cultured to start producing the enzymes - and therefore the compounds associated with scent.
This biotechnological approach to perfumery could be highly advantageous for fragrance companies. Firstly, the current method which relies on growing, hand picking, and distilling vast numbers of roses is at the mercy of nature. The price and quality of roses varies dramatically each year due to poor weather and natural disasters, leading to an inconsistent scent. The use of microorganisms is not only cheaper but it also allows companies to have more control over its production – lots of fermenters would allow mass production.
Despite this, yeast perfume is still a long way off. Victoria Frolova an analyst of the industry believes that even if yeast was used to produce perfume, that perfume companies would avoid highlighting this fact as some consumers might be concerned. Nevertheless, in the future, fragrance companies may be left with no choice than to begin ‘culturing’ our favourite scents.