Breakthroughs in Science: 'Whale Barf' Is No Longer Needed to Make High-End Perfume

Researchers have discovered a plant-based replacement for ambergris, an expensive perfume ingredient made from aged and weathered sperm whale excrement.

sperm whale-reuters.jpg

Reuters

Of all of this week's victories in science, this one has got to be the strangest: Researchers at the University of British Columbia have discovered a plant-based replacement for ambergris, an expensive perfume ingredient made from aged and weathered whale vomit.* 

The press release explains

When sperm whales consume sharp objects, such as seashells and fish bones, their gut produces a sticky substance to protect their digestive organs. They then regurgitate the mixture -- much like cats throwing up fur balls -- and the vomit, reacting with seawater, turns into rock-like objects that wash ashore. These are collected and refined for their fixative properties.

Leave it to the beauty industry to take hunks of regurgitated squid and shellfish and make it an ingredient in the world's "finest" perfumes. However, it's not the substances' marine-fecal-turned-earthly-sweet odor that makes it so valuable. Rather, it is amebergris' chemical composition. As described in a 2007 Scientific American article, ambergris molecules are perfect for perfumes because they are both heavy and lipophilic, meaning they bind to fatty molecules like fragrances. The weight ensures the perfume stays on the skin; the lipophilic property ensures the perfume "sticks" together.

The scientists at UBC have now identified a gene in the balsam fir tree that can create a compound with an ambergris-like effect, allowing high-end perfumes to be animal product-free. This breakthrough could actually help protect the whales from poaching as well as support balsam tree growth, as lead researcher Joerg Bohlmann told the Vancouver Sun. "Without fear of losing the plant life, plant-based products could eliminate animal-based products entirely," he said.

In the meantime -- before this plant-based alternative is manufactured -- ambergris is still wildly valuable. Earlier this year, Bloomberg Businessweek reported the whale waste sells for $20 a gram, and like a fine wine, its value only increases with its age. In 2006, a woman in Montauk, New York was lucky to inherit a 4-lbs. hunk of ambergris. It looked like a waxy tumor and was worth $18,000.

This summer, forget roaming the beaches with a metal detector; bring your ambergris field guide! Ambergris can vary in color and appearance. Some pieces look like rocks; some look like petrified feces. But the best way to identify ambergris is to smell it. I'll leave you with a description of the odor from Ambergris Expertise and Buying Worldwide:

To some people the odour is nauseous while to others it is attractive and even sensuous. There is certainly an animalic component, reminiscent of farm animals, or even a faecal note, perhaps like that of a well rotted manure heap. There can also be a strong marine note like the smell of seaweed on a beach. Once you have smelt it you will not forget it.

*According to Scientific American, no one has actually seen a sperm whale vomit ambergris. The science suggests it may actually leave from the other end of the animal.

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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