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Bioengineering Roundup

December 28, 2012

Tiny microorganisms are playing a big role in chemical manufacturing.



High end perfumes from bacteria. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Sperm whales produce a material called ambergris, a prized ingredient in perfumes because of its earthy smell, and it because it enhances other fragrances. Since hunting the endangered whales became illegal, perfume makers turned to a substitute called sclareol, from a type of sage plant. But growing the plants and extracting the chemical costs a fortune. Now a fragrance company called Firmenich reports in the Journal of the American Chemical Society that they’ve isolated the gene for sclareol, inserted it into bacteria, and used the bacteria to make vats of the substance inexpensively.

In other news, a compound called succinic acid, made from petroleum, is a critical component in plastics, textiles and drugs. Now scientists at Rice University report that they’ve discovered how to make it out of soybeans, a resource that’s cheaper than oil and also renewable. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Ambergris traditional comes from the bile of sperm whales. (National Marine Fisheries Service)