Finally, thanks to modern science, you no longer have to feed a whale a bathing suit full of rotten fish to get a supply of precious ambergris, the whale-vomit-derived material used in perfumes. Researchers have worked out a way to reliably synthesize ambergris from plants.
Ambergris comes from the gut of endangered sperm whales, which produce it in much the same way that oysters produce pearls, using the substance to coat irritating objects. Collecting ambergris doesn’t necessarily harm the whales — they regurgitate the ambergris like 100-pound hairballs, or possibly poop it out, so you don’t have to kill or harm the whale to harvest the stuff. But people still do, because it’s easier, so the ambergris trade is heavily regulated and, even with regulation, sort of tainted with moral ambiguity. Hence the need for synthetic replacements, if wanting a good perfume base qualifies as a “need.”
Existing replacements for ambergris have never been wholly satisfactory, and production is costly and unreliable. But the new synthetic ambergris, which is derived from balsam firs, could finally destroy the market for the whale-derived version. Scientists have isolated the gene in the firs that produces this faux ambergris, called cis-abienol, and they’ve been able to introduce the gene into yeast cells which now produce cis-abienol at an industrial rate.
This isn’t, like, the finest achievement of science in saving whales and the planet. We don’t need ambergris or a reasonable replacement; smelling good isn’t even on Maslow’s hierarchy. But I think it’s always cool to see science at work creating ways for us to live less harmfully.
The Sweet Smell of Synthetic Whale Ambergris, Ecomagination.