Researchers Discover Alternative to Whale Vomit in Perfumes


VANCOUVER—You may have heard perfumes use some rather interesting ingredients in order to help the fragrance stay on the skin longer, e.g., whale vomit; and you would be right. Ambergris is a sticky substance produced in sperm whales after they consume sharp objects in order to protect their digestive organs. The whales then regurgitate the mixture and the vomit, reacting with seawater, turns into rock-like objects that wash ashore, which are collected and refined for their fixative properties.

“The use of ambergris in the fragrance industry has been controversial," said Joerg Bohlmann, professor of Botany and Forest Sciences at the University of British Columbia. “First of all, it’s an animal byproduct and the use of such in cosmetics has been problematic, not to mention it comes from the sperm whale, an endangered species."

Even though much of the ambergris approved for use today is manually collected along the shorelines of known sperm whale habitats in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and in the Caribbean, it is still a costly venture. In the Mediterranean, sage has been cultivated for the production of a plant-based substitute of ambergris, but yields are variable and can be unpredictable, similar to manual collection of ambergris.

Fortunately, researchers at the University of British Columbia identified a gene in balsam fir trees that could facilitate cheaper and more sustainable production of plant-based fixatives and scents used in the fragrance industry.

“We’ve now discovered that a gene from balsam fir is much more efficient at producing such natural compounds, which could make production of this bio-product less expensive and more sustainable," Bohlmann said.

The study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found labdanoid diterpene alcohol cis-abienol, a major component of the aromatic oleoresin of balsam fir, can serve as a valuable bioproduct material for the fragrance industry. Comparative homology modeling suggested the active site residues as potentially important for the specificity of AbCAS, a bifunctional class I/II cis-abienol synthase, which the researchers concluded is a promising target for metabolic engineering of cis-abienol production.