Brave New World: ingredients synthesized by micro-organisms

Several articles have been published recently about a relatively new technology for creating perfumery ingredients (as well as flavorings and some drugs); yeast, fungi, and bacteria can be genetically altered so that they synthesize perfumery ingredients such as vanillin. Although the yeast is a GMO substance, the ingredient it synthesizes is not GMO and is currently considered to be “natural” in the USA and Europe, though there are some challenges to that claim and we’ll have to see what happens.

One stated advantage to this new technology is potentially lower costs for ingredients and therefore the possibility for better formulas to reach the mass market by making natural ingredients more affordable. Another possible advantage would be saving natural resources like sandalwood by synthesizing them instead of harvesting them from nature. Disadvantages include putting some farmers out of business since it would be difficult to compete with the lower prices offered by biotech ingredients. You also have to wonder whether it is wise to create more GMO organisms given the problems we’ve encountered in the past with them, though these micro-organisms would be used in the lab and not introduced into the world the way GMO crops have been. This is likely to be a thorny hot topic in the future.

For more information, see the NYT article “What’s That Smell? Exotic Scents Made From Re-Engineered Yeast” and also see the article titled “Biotechnology Ushers in a New Era of Innovation for Perfumers and Flavorists” by Carolyn Fritz in the November 2013 issue of Perfumer & Flavorist. The NYT article explains the overall topic in lay terms, and the P&F article explains more of the chemistry and science behind the technology.

At the end of the P&F article, the author writes that typical mass market prestige formulas are restricted to cost limits of around $20 per pound, and that this new biosynthesis technology could lower the cost of ingredients enough to allow better ingredients to be used in prestige scents, vastly improving their character. The author lists things like natural rose, jasmine, osmanthus, violet leaf, sandalwood, and vanilla that would be used if cost-effective versions existed. (I think she is envisioning reconstructions of the natural oils by putting together the appropriate biosynthesized natural isolate aroma chemicals that are found in the natural oils.)

I don’t know enough about this topic to make judgments yet, but I couldn’t help having a gut reaction to the lament about today’s poor mass market formulas. Artisan perfumers have been using expensive natural ingredients for years — we do use rose, jasmine, osmanthus and violet leaf absolutes, natural sandalwood oil, natural vanilla absolute, etc. We put the money into the juice rather than packaging, advertising, and celebrity endorsements. We operate on crazy budgets, doing as much as we can ourselves so that every possible dollar can go into the juice. Maybe the answer to the poor quality of mass market juice is not just to look for ways to lower the cost of ingredients but to also change the emphasis from the packaging and advertising to the juice. Artisan brands may put a larger dent into the market in the future because there are now so many of us. Each artisan can only make so many bottles, but together we create quite a lot. I suppose what we do is not significant compared to the quantity of mass market juice, but one can dream that together we are making a difference by offering more options.

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    1. I’m not sure what to think either. I do think it’s sad that the motivation always seems to be to cut costs regardless of other considerations, and I hope there will be transparency.

  1. It sounds like a bad idea to me – I am against GMOs, and trying to lower the cost of ingredients by using them seems like the wrong approach. How about less money spent on packaging and advertising? That gets my vote.

    1. That was my first reaction to the argument about improving quality of mass market scents — they have the power to improve quality now without these new ingredients if they’d adjust the way they spend the money. But I do see the argument about potentially being able to produce replacements for endangered natural ingredients like sandalwood. We already have new sustainably grown sandalwood plantations though (for example some successful efforts in Australia). I’m wary of GMO technology too, but at least the end product in this case is not GMO. It’s a complex issue!

  2. Hmmmm, I’m getting some red flags with this idea. And I admit, I’m cynical enough to believe that the big boys in perfumery (yeah, LVMH, I’m looking at you) will likely use this technology to increase the profit margin instead of increasing the quality. And the GMO thing concerns me a bit.

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