Out of all of the perceptual senses that humans have, our sense of smell is the oldest and most primal – so it comes as no surprise that our most taken-for-granted sense ties into so many areas of our lives. We unknowingly use it constantly to form emotional connections to familiar comforting aromas, to warn us of harmful fumes or rotten food, and to attract us to certain people through pheromones and colognes. All of this is made possible by the brain’s limbic system – the network in the brain where scents and emotions are linked. Here, scents are translated through the brain, allowing them to effect mood, stress levels, sleep, self-confidence and both physical and cognitive performance. When smelling a new fragrance such as a perfume or cologne, our body sends signals to the brain to detect whether we adore or loathe the smell. Sweeter and more natural scents are now being used during fragrance production, and it seems that many fragrance and beauty companies are going the green route like many other industries. Scientists are contributing now more than ever to a sustainable approach to lifestyle accessories by creating more eco-friendly and less artificial scents.
University of California Davis scientists have joined the movement by engineering bacteria to create esters, which are chemical compounds often used to recreate the scents of common foods. Using bacteria as a main source, UC Davis Assistant Professor of Chemistry Shota Atsumi has redefined scent creation and selection in order to provide an alternative resource to the non-renewable oils and gases typically used in fragrance production.
“Our motivation is to make chemicals from renewable sources instead,” Atsumi stated. “Scents and flavorings make up a $20 billion industry worldwide.”
Along with Graduate student Gabriel Rodriguez, Atsumi took genes from yeast pathways and introduced them to E. coli bacteria. They found that with certain combinations, they could shut down some pathways while making room for others; this allowed for fine-tuning of the esters and therefore the scents created.
Atsumi has patented this idea, and hopes to move forward with his scientific methods. By using chemical pathways to directly draw energy from the sun, Atsumi now wants to create new ways in which we view chemicals and bacteria. We can only hope that his production of sweet smells bring forth more sustainability to the fragrance and beauty world, and display the emphatic role that science plays in our daily lives.