Through the intervention of biotech, those pink, purple and white blossoms filling northeastern North Carolina fields this time of year are subbing for one of natures ocean giants the endangered sperm whale.
Aware of the dwindling number of whales, which traditionally supplied perfume manufacturers with scent-stabilizing ambergris, German scientists in the mid-1900s started looking for natural substances that mimicked its molecular makeup.
They found that in Salvia sclarea, the clary sage plant. A native of the Mediterranean and different from sage used in cooking, it produces a waxy substance very like ambergris, which sperm whales create in their intestines to coat indigestible objects.
In the past, the floating, waxy mass excreted by the whales was picked up onshore by fishermen and sold for huge sums, but the man responsible for North Carolinas presence in the fragrance-stabilizing business said price doesnt even matter anymore.
Theres so little ambergris in the world, its immaterial, said Dr. David Peele, president of Bertie County-based botanical extractor Avoca Inc.
What is a factor in the market is sclareolide, a chemical compound Avoca creates from sclareol a waxy substance taken from the sage.
Its almost identical to what was coming out of the ambergris, Peele said.
Avocas extraction facility, based in the hamlet of Merry Hill, uses the solvent hexane to extract sclareol from sage plants harvested by 75 farmers who plant this on 14,000 acres in 11 counties.
Thats a far cry from the less than 1,000 acres being farmed when Peele and David Holmes, head of New Jersey-based botanical extractor Phamachem Laboratories Inc., bought Avoca in 2003.
The company now employs 120.
Demand for Avocas signature product stayed flat for almost 20 years, till the mid-90s, Peele said.
Suddenly, the demand for sclareolide dramatically increased because of its use in laundry detergents and fabric softeners.
A ban on phosphates in detergents because of their role in fish-killing algae blooms turned manufacturers to the use of enzymes. Without fragrance, Peele said, clothes washed with enzymes, though clean, would smell like dirty socks.
Avocas sclareolide competes with a synthetic product by Switzerland-based fragrance maker Firmenich S. A., Peele said. Between them, according to Peele, they pretty much divide the market, though he declines to give sales figures or estimate market share.
How it works
Ambergris, and now sclareolide, are prized as fixatives because the molecules are heavy, keeping the fragrance lingering on the body. Theyre also lipophilic, meaning they bind easily to fat molecules like perfume.
A fixative prevents a desirable fragrance from evaporating too fast, said Peele. A perfume not only has to have a pleasant smell, but youve got to then have it stay on your body as long as you think it should for what you paid for it.
After the sage plant blooms, stem and all is cut into 1-inch pieces and relieved of its sclareol, The transformation of sclareol to the sclareolide product is the most interesting part, said Peele.
We have to convert sclareol from a 22-carbon compound into sclareolide, a 16-carbon compound. Its a bioconversion done with yeast, at a sister company in Wisconsin. The yeast cell will use sclareol as its carbon source, and so inside the yeast cell the conversion goes to sclareolide.
What fragrance market?
Sclareols role in fixatives wasnt on the mind of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. executives in 1961 when they built the facility that now houses Avoca. Sclareol also can be made to mimic an ingredient in Turkish tobacco, and the tobacco giant started growing sage and extracting the chemical for that reason, said Peele.
The tobacco market changed and the company abandoned the project, switching to produce sclareolide for the fragrance market. Peele, as an RJR agronomist, worked with it.
He holds an undergraduate degree in agricultural engineering and a Ph.D. in crop science from North Carolina State University, and a masters in soil science from Ohio State University.
When RJR decided to divest itself of the sclareolide business, Peele took the plunge.
Id been here for 25 years and wanted to stay with it. So I found a partner, and we were able to take it private, he said.
Avoca also uses a variety of extraction methods to create other products for itself and, under contract, for other companies. Peele sees Avocas extraction-for-hire role growing, as more and more companies use technology to turn North Carolinas diverse plant life into new products.
The Aurora native is the immediate past chairman of the N.C. Biotechnology Centers Eastern Advisory Committee; the center is a state-funded nonprofit economic development corporation.
Laboratories around the state making specialized food products are getting to the point they need a company like Avoca to help them get what they want from a plant, he said.
Weve visited the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, for example, and what theyre exploring with foods in the lab stage, were prepared to participate in from the processing standpoint.
Gwyn Riddick, the N.C. Biotechnology Centers vice president for agricultural biotechnology, said that when hes recruiting companies to develop their products in the state, he offers the presence of Avoca as a lure.
There are only three commercial botanical extractors in North America, he said, one up in Canada, one in Texas, and then we have this one.
In North Carolina, were getting into a really fast-growing bio-economy, Riddick said. Green plants can provide us all sorts of renewable compounds that can replace a lot of the nonrenewable petroleum compounds.
In that big picture, having one of the few botanical extraction facilities in North America is a great asset.