Smell is one of the most powerful senses we have and can trigger all kinds of emotions and memories. What would it be like the smell a flower that’s been extinct for 100 years? That’s the question synthetic-biology company Ginkgo Bioworks set out to answer when they created a perfume from extinct flowers.
How did they do it? First, a team went to the Harvard University Herabia in 2016 and collected samples from pressed plants like the Hawaiian mountain hibuscus, which is believed to have disappeared in the 1910’s, and the Wynberg conebush, which hasn’t been seen since 1806. The DNA of these samples was isolated and decoded, and then in the Ginkgo Bioworks lab, scientists started synthesizing terpenes inside yeast cells. Terpenes is just the fancy term for the molecules that give stuff their smell.
The resulting hodge-podge of terpenes was sent to “olfactory artist” Sissel Tolaas which is not a career we knew existed. She once helped make a Limburger cheese from David Beckham’s sweat. For Ginkgo Biowork’s perfume, using her expert chemistry skills, Tolaas assembled the extinct flower terpenes into combos that smelled pleasant.
This perfume project premiered at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris this past February as a large-scale immersive installation. Diffusions of the perfumes fill the air. Exhibitions have also been held in London, Italy, the Netherlands, and the US. In some places (Smithsonian Design Museum in New York and Cube design museum in the Netherlands), the installation will run through January 2020. We probably won’t see the perfume sold at a store like Target anytime soon. However, if resurrecting the fragrance of extinct plants is possible, anything is.
What’s next for Ginkgo Bioworks, which calls itself “the organism company?” Raising funds and continuing its work developing all sorts of cool flavors, fragrances, soil microbes, and more. It’s one of the largest companies of its kind, so expect to see more.