They make fine wine and the loaf of bread to go with it. Tiny single-celled members of the fungus kingdom, yeast cells may be one of the oldest domesticated organisms. Throw in some bacteria and you have the cheese as well.
Yeast and bacteria have been used since ancient time to produce our food and drink through fermentation. They have also played a role more recently in the production of various drugs including insulin and antibiotics, whether through natural pathways or using genetically modified strains. In just the past few years, yeast has been modified to make fragrance molecules. A few startup companies including Gingko Bioworks, Amyris, and Allylix propose to develop designer yeasts for production of test tube patchouli, vetiver, and even rose fragrances that can be scaled up to industrial-size vats. Hard-to-find fragrances such as mango, apricot, and coconut are also in the plans. Working with large companies like Robertet and Firmenich, they describe these products as cultured fragrances.
Taking advantage of similar biosynthetic pathways that plants use to make fragrant molecules, companies tweak yeast genes or splice in genes from a plant that makes a particular fragrance. While they can take advantage of methods developed by companies for production of drugs and stevia, for example, it still seems that most of the fragrance production is still in the development phase. Once they get production down, isolation of the desired scent molecules almost certainly requires further manipulation and purification.
Production of molecules in a vat sounds much like the process for producing aromachemicals from petroleum or turpentine. But….the workhorse in this is a living organism and it is using the same biochemical processes that plants use. So …..
Does this make it natural? From one viewpoint, possibly, because a living organism produces a scent using an existing biochemical reaction. From another, it is an artificial process from modifying the genome of the bacteria to manipulating the feedstock and end result.
Is it sustainable? Essential oil crops are often grown in the traditional manner which may use petroleum-based fuel for tractors and distillation units as well as pesticides and fertilizers. Fermentation allows producers to ‘grow’ the aromachemicals in a lab or production facility, minimizing a lot of the input.
Where does it fit? Big fragrance companies are very interested because it seems ‘natural’ and they can point to a reduced environmental foot print for production. Essential oil producers and users may see this as a threat to the continued production of essential oil crops. In addition to large commercial EO ventures, there are many small operations, often family farms, which may lose a share of the market and be unable to continue farming.
Technology and science are taking aromachemical production to new horizons. Without clear definitions and guidance from government entities, it is up to each user (perfumer!) to educate themselves, question their suppliers, and be transparent about their materials.
One more quick note, when I spoke to the people of Ginkgo Bioworks at the World Perfumery Congress in Miami in 2016 they told me about a concept of taking DNA from extinct plants and re-creating a scent that hasn’t been smelled for thousands of years. Intriguing.
Why do you use and like natural fragrance materials?
Would you be open to trying a fermented fragrance ingredient?