A new Artificial Intelligence exhibit at the London Barbican Centre displayed what the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus flower used to smell like. It was a tree that once stood on a Hawaiian island called Maui. They plucked the specimen in 1912.
A company, called Ginkgo Bioworks, that specialises in microbes, and the International Flavors and Fragrances Inc (IFF) both collaborated on the project. Others involved are smell researcher, Sissel Tolaas and multidisciplinary artist and synthetic biology researcher Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.
According to a report from Scientific American, the Scent Trek initiative, which captured molecules around exotic flowers and fruits, inspired the project.
Some research suggests that scientists could take DNA from plants and animals preserved in a museum. Ginkgo Bioworks explained that it was not very easy to extract the necessary DNA.
Ginsberg admitted that it was difficult and the samples were already degraded by time. The team then decided to send samples of the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus to a Paleogenomics Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). The lab crushed them into powder and was able to extract some usable DNA.
They then ran the DNA through a sequencing machine at the Gingko Bioworks laboratory. Through this, they successfully produced genetic codes.
They then dropped off the molecules with yeast and allowed them to ferment for a while. Ginsberg said, “Ideally, those yeasts start producing the particular smell molecules. So that’s the synthetic biology bit.” The results were then analysed with an electronic nose that uses mass spectrometry.
“That’s how you end up getting a list of the molecules that are smelly that the flower or plant may have produced. We don’t actually know the quantities of those molecules. We have a shopping list, but we don’t know the amounts.”
At the end of the day, the team was able to complete the process for the Hibiscadelphus wilderianus plant and two others. However, the scientists say the volume of the molecules was too small for a human to smell directly.
Now the team faces the problem of how exactly the smells of the flower should blend together. Ginsberg admitted that they “don’t actually know the quantities of those molecules. We have a shopping list, but we don’t know the amounts. So then it becomes much more contingent and blurry, the picture that you create.”
The scientists say they are using biotechnology to talk about loss and memory. Some flowers have apparently been lost due to human invasion. But do these experiments mean that these scents can be relieved and perhaps used as fragrances or, even better, maybe bring these plants back to life?