A visit to your local perfume counter isn’t just an experience in the ancient art of crafting fragrances. In fact, in many cases, what you smell is science! Let’s take a closer look.

What Drives Biotechnology in the Fragrance Industry?

In recent years, the adoption of biotech tools and methods in fragrances has been driven by several important factors:

  • The need for consistency. Ingredients derived from truly natural sources are always inconsistent to some degree. The potency of fragrances varies a great deal depending on the season, habitat, and weather conditions of a plant. While perfume manufacturing jobs have always processed ingredients to deliver the same customer experience, bottle after bottle, it has always been a challenge. 
  • A desire for sustainability and plant-based products. In the past, many of the most important ingredients in the most famous perfumes in the world were made from rare, exotic, and often animal-based ingredients. As the industry seeks to control costs and consumers demand vegan and sustainable products, biochemists, geneticists, and perfumers are seeking biotech equivalents. 
  • The urge to innovate. For centuries, perfumes and fragrances have been based on various combinations of classic scent profiles. However, biotechnology enables the creation of entirely new scent molecules, sparking innovation and revolution in an ancient industry.

How Are Biotech Fragrances Synthesized?

To understand the innovation of biotech in fragrances, it’s helpful to step back a bit in history. Here are the three ways that fragrances are created:

  1. Naturally. Traditionally, fragrances have been extracted from the natural world, using natural material like rosemary, ambergris, musk, flowers, and vanilla pods to capture and distill the fragrance molecules. 
  2. Synthetically. In the 70s and 80s, more and more fragrances began to be synthesized in laboratories, creating compounds collectively known as aldehydes. Aldehydes are used to “lighten” heavy fragrances, giving them a cleaner, sparkly top note that is increasingly popular as consumers move away from heavier scents. However, production of aldehydes requires fossil fuels, and there is growing industry and consumer sentiment away from synthetic ingredients. 
  3. Biologically. As a solution, many fragrance companies have gone back to basics. Plants have enzymes that naturally convert sugars into volatile fragrance compounds, so biotechnologists have begun mimicking that natural process in laboratory environments. To culture a fragrance, the natural plant enzyme DNA is analyzed and then edited into the genome of a yeast. When the yeast is fed specific sugars, it naturally creates volatile compounds. These can be replicated, controlled, or modified through genetic encoding, or by simply altering the foodstock and/or fermentation process of the yeast in question. These methods are more consistent than natural harvesting, are capable of producing entirely new fragrance molecules, and, although they are still more expensive than synthetic methods, are decreasing in manufacturing cost. Importantly, they are less carbon-intensive, and can even be carbon neutral. 

Groundbreaking Cultured Fragrances

Some of the rarest, most expensive, most popular fragrances in the world are now produced by biotechnology. Some of the biggest innovations have been:

  • Cultured sandalwood oil. Sandalwood is one of the most expensive woods in the world, and the species suffers from overharvesting. Sandalwood oil can only be extracted from mature trees, 15 or more years old, which further reduces its availability. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have used sandalwood tree genes to biosynthesize sandalwood fragrance in genetically modified yeast. The yeasts need to be modified not simply to produce the biosynthetic enzymes, but also to be able to tolerate the volatile compound that would normally be toxic to the organism. 
  • Sustainable ambergris. Ambergris is a waxy substance found in the digestive tracts of sperm whales. It has a unique, sweet, earthy scent, and has been used in perfumes and incense since ancient times. It is not only prized as a perfume ingredient for its scent, but also because it is a highly effective fixative: it reduces the volatility of other odor compounds and enables the scent to last much longer. Late last year, legendary Swiss fragrance company Givaudan announced their new biotech production method for Ambrofix, sustainably created with fermented sugar cane and 100% carbon neutral. 
  • Biotech vanilla. Natural vanilla is made from the seed pod of a Mexican orchid, and is one of the most popular fragrances in the world. Natural production meets only 1% of the world’s demand for vanilla. For decades, fragrance industry giants like Norwegian bio­refinery Borregaard ASA, Solvay SA, and Mane SA from Bar-sur-Loup have been culturing synthetic vanilla fragrances using proprietary yeasts, fungi, and bacteria. Today, innovators like Dutch Isobionics and Swiss Evolva are genetically modifying microorganisms to produce vanilla and other popular fragrances in a way that guarantees consistent availability, quality, and purity.  

These technologies are making classic scents like patchouli, musk, and citrus more sustainable, affordable, and available. Even more interestingly, these technologies could re-introduce fragrances that have historically been too rare or too expensive for commercial use, making beta­-elemene, agarwood, saffron, and other exotic scents accessible for consumer fragrances. 

The world of cultured fragrances requires teams of exceptional professionals, including researchers and analysts who explore the marketplace, geneticists and bioengineers who develop new technologies, artisans and perfumers who craft products, and biologists and chemists to cultivate microbes. It’s a big business, one fragrance molecule at a time. 

At Grapefrute, we share your passion for science, innovation, and quality. We are an FMCG recruiter that loves the industry as much as you do. Contact us for more information about our staffing and recruitment services, or visit our site for current job openings in fragrances, flavors, and biotechnology.