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Swiss researchers develop new method to produce ambergris alternative

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February 27, 2013

Researchers have found a cost-effective way to produce an alternative to ambergris (Photo:...

Researchers have found a cost-effective way to produce an alternative to ambergris (Photo: Peter Kaminski via flickr)

Highly prized by perfume makers, ambergris is a natural material that fetches thousands of dollars per pound. The high price tag is due to the material's rarity, which is a result of its source – the digestive system of sperm whales, from which it is expelled to float around the ocean and has led to it being dubbed "floating gold." While its cost and the endangered status of the sperm whale has caused many perfume manufacturers to turn to synthetic alternatives, the most popular of these is laborious to produce. Now a team of researchers has developed a method to sustainably produce large quantities of an ambergris alternative.

The most commonly used ambergris alternative is a synthetic organic compound called Ambroxan, which was first synthesized in 1950 and is marketed by perfume and flavor company Firmenich under the trade name Ambrox, (and by other names by other companies). It is synthesized from sclareol, a diterpene chemical compound found in the Clary sage plant. The problem is that Clary sage only produces sclareol in small quantities, and the compound is difficult to process and purify.

Laurent Daviet and Michel Schalk at Firmenich managed to isolate the DNA from the Clary sage plant that produces the two enzymes needed for the chemical process that produces Ambrox. By genetically modifying Escherichia Coli (E. coli) bacteria with the Clary sage DNA, the researchers were able to reconstruct the sclareol biosynthetic pathway and cost-effectively produce large amounts of sclareol in bioreators.

The research will likely be of interest to perfume companies in the U.S. where use of ambergris has been banned since 1972. However, ambergris remains in use in other markets, such as France, where it continues to attract a high price. While the new bacteria-enabled bioengineered alternative may give the perfume industry a cheaper and more easily accessible option, it’s likely that some people will continue to dream of stumbling on a chunk of whale-blessed good luck on some remote beach.

The team's research was described in detail in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Source: ACS via Cosmetics Design

About the Author
Antonio Pasolini Brazilian-Italian Antonio Pasolini graduated in journalism in Brazil before heading out to London for an MA in film and television studies. He fell in love with the city and spent 13 years there as a film reviewer before settling back in Brazil. Antonio's passion for green issues - and the outdoors - eventually got the best of him and since 2007 he's been writing about alternative energy, sustainability and new technology.   All articles by Antonio Pasolini
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7 Comments

So they make perfume out of whale s#!t ? Nice.

Brian Mcc
27th February, 2013 @ 06:14 pm PST

I wish this sort of thing led to a large scale or even small scale effort to increase the sperm whale population.

Ben Tumaru O'Brien
27th February, 2013 @ 08:52 pm PST

There are a couple of problems with this article. First, its suggests sperm whales are endangered when in fact there are hundreds of thousands of them all over the world. In fact more of them than there are of Minke Whales - the whales the Japanese hunt. Secondly very few sperm whales have large amounts of ambergris in their digestive tract and its very difficult / impossible to tell which ones have. Even the whalers wouldnt kill sperm whales just to see if they have ambergris inside them. So its good if a reliable source of ambergris can be found. Third and most important point. The most valuable ambergris is that which has been outside of the whale being washed by the sea over many years. How do you replicate that?

Dale Chatwin
27th February, 2013 @ 11:34 pm PST

What makes me wonder is why they are going to all this effort to duplicate an ambergris [i]substitute[/i], and a mediocre one at best. Why not duplicate the real thing? Surely determining its chemical makeup is not beyond the means of today's biochemistry---most likely it already has been done. It remains to find a viable synthetic pathway.

Freederick
28th February, 2013 @ 05:44 am PST

I wonder how much ambergris gets swept up in beach grooming equipment? And if some sort of electronic nose or other detection method might recognize when said equipment is in close proximity. Even if these whale particles end up being accurately synthesized, it strikes me there will always be a high priced market for the authentic article.

Bob Ehresman
28th February, 2013 @ 08:29 am PST

There is a Russian car maker that makes high end SUVs with, what they claim, is the softest leather seats on Earth; the leather they use is from the penis of whales.

Nelson
28th February, 2013 @ 08:37 am PST

Brian, wrong end of the tube, this sounds like ambergris is whale barf seasoned in seawater. Still seems like an unattractive discovery. Leave it to the French to find this. All in all, not as Krappy a job as searching for slightly modified coffee beans in tiger droppings. Another discovery that really does not seem to be especially useful to the world.

A genuinely useful product would be an inexpensive and exact replacement for palm oil made from some natural seed oil that does NOT contribute to habitat destruction. Maybe something made from soy beans or peanuts, etc., and that DOES NOT need to be grown in a tropical forest.

StWils
28th February, 2013 @ 08:48 am PST
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