If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, what do you call a rose aroma cultured in a lab? A go-to for tomorrow’s perfumers, if Ginkgo Bioworks gets its way. The Boston-based biotech company is working with 167-year-old French fragrance house Robertet on a palette of cultured scents produced by engineered yeasts. The process is somewhat like brewing beer, but bioengineers tinker with the microbes’ metabolism to produce, say, a peach-like scent instead of pilsner. “We have a palette of really fruity flavors that we’re working on,” says Ginkgo Bioworks creative director Christina Agapakis. “The first one is peach, but there’s also apricot and coconut and mango, and all of those are really similar in their biochemistry.” Then there’s the cultured rose project, which has caught the most attention—not only because of the romantic cachet of the rose, but because it takes several tons of rose petals to produce a single kilogram of rose oil. “Compared to anything that is extracted from a plant that’s hard to grow, this is faster. It’s a more stable supply. You don’t have the fluctuations of the seasons,” Agapakis says, noting that a bad growing season for the famed flowers of Grasse can dramatically affect a perfumer’s bottom line.
Christina Agapakis, photographed by Holly Rike
Cultured ingredients won’t be exact replicas of aromas, but they could create more accessible price points, provide an alternative to rare or endangered resources and allow for customization (Agapakis imagines perfume houses ordering bespoke rose “varietals”). But the Harvard-trained biologist also has a background in art—her past projects include making cheese using bacteria from human subjects for an exhibit in Dublin—so Agapakis is especially excited by opportunities to be creative with biotechnology. Case in point: The Seaport-based lab is trying to recreate the scents of extinct flowers. “The Harvard Herbaria is this beautiful library with 5 million samples of plants, and we were able to find from those 5 million about 10 or 15 that had gone extinct. So we’re working on sequencing those and trying to remove those genes from the plant tissue and put them into yeasts,” Agapakis says. “It’s like Jurassic Park perfumes!”
Photo: Anais Benoudiz