Yes, whale vomit — although some experts suspect that this smelly, grayish, waxy intestinal secretion actually comes from the other end of the whale. It’s actually been known throughout the ages as an aphrodisiac, a medication and a food flavoring. But ambergris, as it’s called, is most famous in modern times as a rare fragrance ingredient that has a sweet and earthy scent. It also helps a perfume’s scent last longer on its wearer.
There’s a problem with ambergris, though. Sperm whales are the only source of the prized substance, but they are an endangered species. And that makes it illegal in some countries (like the U.S.) to buy or sell it. But lucky beachcombers in the right countries who find ambergris washed up on the shore can fetch thousands of dollars per pound of the stuff.
Most perfume makers now use ambergris substitutes. One is made from sclareol, which they get from the Clary sage plant. There’s a bit of a problem with sclareol, too — only small amounts of it are in the plant. It’s laborious to extract and purify enough of it for perfumes. That’s why the scientists looked for a better way of making large amounts of sclareol.
In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists report a new, sustainable way to make sclareol. Their report describes isolating the genetic material (DNA) that produces the two Clary sage enzymes needed to make sclareol. They put the DNA into bacteria, which made large amounts of sclareol in bioreactors.