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Don’t look now but your pricy perfume could contain ambergris, a wax-like ingredient known less euphemistically as whale vomit. Found in the upchuck or fecal matter of the sperm whale, which has trouble digesting sharp objects like squid beaks, the essence has been used as a fragrance fixative for centuries. But here’s the rub: The rock-like globs are as expensive as they are rare, fetching up to $20,000 per kilogram. Add to that the endangered nature of its regurgitator and it’s no huge surprise that the stuff has been supplanted by cheaper synthetics such as cis-abienol, an ersatz ambergris derived from balsam fir trees. But Ambrox, as the replacement is called, isn’t a perfect solution. Synthesizing it in the lab yields only about 30 percent useful material. The solution? Yeast.

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Diving into the balsam fir genetic code, researchers from the University of British Columbia isolated the gene responsible for producing cis-abienol. Joerg Bohlmann and his team then transfered it into some yeast cells, which accepted the gene and began cranking out cis-abienol in earnest.

Researcher isolated the gene responsible for producing cis-abienol, then transferred it into yeast cells.

“With cheap perfumes, half an hour later all the good stuff is gone and it’s evaporated before the night gets interesting,” Bohlmann tells Ecomagination. “Compounds like ambergris are able to retain fragrance on the skin in a complex form over a long period of time.” For companies that still use ambergris from whales, its high-market value is “not a disincentive for hunting whales,” he adds.

Plus, unlike petrochemical-based products, his version of Ambrox doesn’t trade one depleting resource for another. “The next time you’re asked ‘Do you know that there might be whale barf in your perfume?'” Bohlmann says, “You could answer, ‘Well, no, there’s a plant product in my perfume produced through a biological process that is very clean and sustainable!”

+ University of British Columbia

[Via Ecomagination]