Exploring the Scents of Extinct Flowers Through Biotechnology

As people who love flowers and work to keep our favorites from commercial extinction, we’ve been fascinated by the launch of a start-up beauty company offering perfumes inspired by the fragrances of extinct flowering plants. The CEO of Arcaea, Jasmina Aganovic, is an MIT-trained chemical engineer who is using the products cutting-edge biotechnology to bring new ideas and processes to the beauty industry.

The story begins in the laboratories of Gingko Bioworks, founded by MIT synthetic-biology graduates, which specializes in designing microbes which will produce particular molecules such as flavorings or pharmaceuticals valuable to various industries. In this case, DNA was extracted from fragments of plant specimens preserved in the Harvard University Herbarium. It was sequenced and genes identified that were likely involved with fragrance-producing molecules. The genetic code was inserted into yeast to produce quantities enough for noses, both human and mechanical, to detect. Aganovic then worked with master perfumers from around the world to formulate the six fragrance blends that are currently available. As she explained in a recent Forbes interview, we may never know exactly what these extinct flowers smelled like, but we can catch some of their essence. “I want to be very clear about the potential, and also the limitations of this—we're never actually going to know what these flowers smelled like,” Aganovic says. “This is just a starting piece of data that gives us a little bit of a glimpse. It's not going to be able to tell us everything.”

Always willing to do our own research, we bought one of their sampler sets to try for ourselves. All 6 scents were pleasing but each distinct enough for favorites to emerge. Rita liked Jerome Epinette’s ‘Floating Forest’ best, which the company describes as “A cooling, watery overture is awakened by a pinch of black pepper and vibrant bergamot, softened by a floral heart, and grounded by the soothing scent of earthy woods, salted musk, and wet stones.” It was inspired by a tree endemic to Borneo, Shorea cuspidata, which hasn’t been seen in the wild since 1998 and probably lost to logging. It was also a standout for editors at Harper’s Bazaar who raved “Just the idea of extinct flower sequencing is thrilling, but the experience of actually smelling each of Future Society’s scents cements the brand as one of the most exciting new launches in recent memory. The fragrances are not only wearable, but also refreshingly unique. It’s as if your brain can’t pick out one particular note with each sniff, because the scents smell like something you’ve never known.”

Vanessa’s favorite, ‘Invisible Woods’, is based on Wendlandia angustifolia, a species of small flowering trees from India’s Western Ghat mountains, last recorded in 1917 and likely a victim of drought. From perfumer Daneila Andrier, it’s described as “Invigorating grapefruit and ginger are met by the calming embrace of eucalyptus, chamomile, and rose absolute– grounded by a natural, woody base.” Amelia says the due to “midwestern sentimentality” she chose “Grassland Opera”, based on Orbexilum stipulatum which flowered on Rock Island in the Falls of the Ohio River back in the mid-19th century. It was another Harper’s standout and its designer Olivia Jan explained that since the “flower grew near a waterfall, … I tried to make something wet, green, and lush.”

For lots more on the story of the recovery and sequencing of DNA from these extinct plants, read this lyrical Scientific American article and listen to Aganovic’s TedXTalk to hear her ideas on using biotechnology to create a sustainable future for the beauty industry.