What’s That Smell? Exotic Scents Made From Re-engineered Yeast

Green vanilla beans growing on vanilla vine near Idukki in Kerala, India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now a powerful form of genetic engineering could revolutionize the production of some of the most sought-after flavors and fragrances.

Vanilla, saffron, patchouli. For centuries, spices and flavorings like these have come from exotic plants growing in remote places like the jungles of Mexico or the terraced hillsides of Madagascar. Some were highly prized along ancient trading routes like the Silk Road.

Now a powerful form of genetic engineering could revolutionize the production of some of the most sought-after flavors and fragrances. Rather than being extracted from plants, they are being made by genetically modified yeast or other micro-organisms cultured in huge industrial vats.

“It’s just like brewing beer, but rather than spit out alcohol, the yeast spits out these products,” said Jay D. Keasling, a co-founder of Amyris, a company based here that is a pioneer in the field. However, while yeast makes alcohol naturally, it would not produce the spices without the extensive genetic rejiggering, which is called synthetic biology.

The advent of synthetic biology raises thorny economic and regulatory issues, such as whether such yeast-made ingredients can be called natural and whether developing countries dependent on these crops will be hurt.

Supporters say the technique could benefit food and cosmetic companies, and ultimately consumers, by reducing wild swings in price, availability and quality that come from dependence on agriculture. It may even relieve pressure on some overharvested wild plants like sandalwood, a tree that provides a fragrance.

The products, which taste or smell nearly the same as the real thing, are coming quickly and even moving beyond flavors and fragrances to include other commodities, like rubber and drugs.

In April, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi began commercial production of an essential malaria drug using baker’s yeast genetically modified by Amyris. The drug’s ingredient is usually extracted from a shrub that grows wild or is cultivated in China, Vietnam and various African countries. Amyris is also making a moisturizer for cosmetics that is typically extracted from either olives or shark livers.

Evolva, a Swiss company, is about to start marketing yeast-made vanillin, the main component of vanilla. It is also working on saffron, now obtained mainly from crocuses grown in Iran.

Two other companies, Isobionics and Allylix, are separately producing valencene, a flavoring usually extracted from oranges, and nootkatone, a grapefruit flavor that also has potential as an insect repellent.

“It’s really environmentally friendly. The whole process is sustainable,” said Toine Janssen, chief executive of Isobionics, based in the Netherlands.

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But critics say the technology threatens the livelihoods and exports of developing countries. “They are going after pockets of tropical farmers around the world,” said Jim Thomas, a researcher at the ETC Group, a Canadian technology watchdog.

Rick Brownell, an executive at the Virginia Dare Extract Company, a leading supplier of natural vanilla based in Brooklyn, said 80,000 farmers in Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries, grow vanilla beans.

“I really count on that to make a living,” said Bersonina, 63, a farmer in Madagascar. Bersonina, who uses only one name, said in a telephone interview arranged by the company that the $200 he made last year producing about 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds, of vanilla barely supported his family of four. He said he was not familiar with the yeast-made vanilla substitute but imagined that an industrial process “could make thousands and thousands of tons,” posing a threat to farmers like himself.

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