Resurrecting the Genes of Extinct Plants

Yeast puffs up bread and ferments beer. But for scientists at Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston,
the microbes are taking them back more than a century to resurrect, for the first time
ever, the scent of an extinct flower. The researchers started with a species of
Hawaiian mountain hibiscus that went extinct in 1912. Taking a small piece of a preserved specimen,
the scientists planned to use the flower’s DNA to reconstruct the plant’s fragrant
molecules. There was only one problem: when an organism
has been dead for a long time, its DNA starts to break down into many pieces, like a jigsaw
puzzle. So the scientists at Ginkgo turned to a paleogenomics
lab for help. Like paleontologists assembling ancient bones,
scientists working in paleogenomics piece together old fragments of DNA. Using similar DNA sequences as clues, the
scientists were able to digitally assemble the genetic code for enzymes that
make the extinct flower’s fragrance molecules A special printer converted the recovered
sequences into physical DNA, which was then plugged into yeast, turning the organism into
a fragrance factory. A scent artist created 11 different combinations
of the identified fragrance molecules, blending together predictions of what the flower might
have smelled like and giving the scientists at Ginkgo a glimpse—or whiff—into the
past. After the scientists got their first sniff
of the 11 different fragrance blends, we asked: what was it like to smell an extinct flower? If you think about the goal of this pro-this
project, they’re not resurrecting a plant. They’re letting you interact with the ghost
of this plant. Like just, you’re just getting a little evanescent
whiff of part of the essence of this plant that’s no longer with us. So whatever that smell is, it should make
you think about the thing that’s gone, which is basically what ghosts always do. I just feel really overwhelmed and now having
been sitting with the smells for a long time, um. But it was really cool to see how, yeah,
that–that list of molecular names in a spreadsheet was translated into those different experiences. And they ranged from really delicate and floral
to really spicy. And I had two favorites, one of the spicy
category, and one of the more floral category. There was several that were, that kind of
had floral, citrusy, lavender qualities that, um, I thought
were very captivating. Of the spicy ones, it was more, it was almost
volcanic, right. There was like a volcanic flavor that was
immediate, and you know, that’s where this plant grew back, back in the day when it was
alive. One of the main compounds that I was really
excited about was beta-caryophyllene, which has like a woody peppery aroma to it. The strongest one, the one that went on to
like the campfire side, yeah as we’ve been sitting out there, people are saying like
“Oh, you should call this one smokehouse.” I’m just gonna smell it one more time. So, what else is on the resurrection wishlist? I did spend a little bit of time looking into
what it would take to make, um, like if elephants have musk, so that if I could do the woolly
mammoth smell. I want, I want to smell a saber-toothed tiger’s
musk because I picture it being like really scary musk. So I would really like to go back and
be able to reconstruct what the primordial soup looked like,
when you have the first organisms, right, that became alive. And I think that would be awesome, right,
because that would really tell us like how life started. I’m a proponent of sequencing. So, you know, the motto of my team is “Sequence
all the things.” So the more genome sequences we have, right,
of everything, the more we can actually reconstruct the path to, from, you know, 4 billion years
ago to now. Read Ghost Flowers by Rowan Jacobsen in
Scientific American’s February 2019 issue.


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