Producing vanillin - the major compound in vanilla flavouring - is an inefficient and mostly polluting process. But a Danish researcher wants to change that, having identified the compound's biosynthetic pathway in the vanilla orchid. Jim Drury went to meet her.
It's one of life's simple pleasures - a vanilla ice cream on a summer's day. But it also has its costs - not just on the waistline. Professor Birger Lindberg Møller says most vanillin used to create vanilla's distinct flavour is synthetic - and its production relies on fossil fuels. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR BIRGER LINDBERG MØLLER, HEAD OF CENTER FOR SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY AT UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN, SAYING: "So 99 percent of the vanillin, the main compound in the flavour vanilla, you are buying in the shops is coming either produced from oil or boiling wood with acid, and the procedure to boil wood with acid is very very polluting." Moller runs Copenhagen's Center for Synthetic Biology, which aims to harness individual plant cells in a bid to create a sustainable, bio-based, society. Researcher Dr. Nethaji Gallage has identified a compound common to all plants that can form vanillin. SOUNDBITE (English) NETHAJI JANESHAWARI GALLAGE, POSTDOC RESEARCHER, SAYING: "It is a compound called ferulic acid, which is found in all other plants, in all plant cell wall production, and this compound is converted to vanillin by one enzyme called vanillin synthase, so this complicated pathway happened to be quite simple." Vanillin orchids have no natural pollinators, and breeding by hand takes thousands of orchid pods. Gallage thinks identifying other plants containing the vanillin-producing enzymes could be a solution. SOUNDBITE) (English) NETHAJI JANESHAWARI GALLAGE, POSTDOC RESEARCHER, SAYING: "If they have some trace of vanillin in these plants we found that they also have a vanillin synthase like enzyme. So we look at these types of vanilla like enzymes and the vanillin synthase because this would give us opportunity to change the amino acid sequence and maybe produce vanillin in other plants." Gallage says harnessing ferulic acid could make the production of vanillin easier, more efficient, and environmentally neutral. It might also help ice cream makers hit a more natural sweet spot.