Gifts of gold, 2-octyl­cyclopropanecarboxylic acid . . . and myrrh

16 December 2016

Sotheby’s

Gifts: The Adoration of the Magi, an oil-and-gold panel painting by the Master of the St Florian Crucifixion triptych (Vienna, early 1470s-90s). The work sold for £112,500 at Sotheby’s in London last week

Gifts: The Adoration of the Magi, an oil-and-gold panel painting by the Master of the St Florian Crucifixion triptych (Vienna, early 1470s-90...

SCIENTISTS believe that they have identified the compound that gives frankincense its distinctive scent, often described as “Christmassy”, or “old church”.

A team of research chemists have named it as 2-octylcyclopropane­carboxylic acid, or olibanic acid for short, from olibanum, another name for frankincense.

Made from the dried resin of the Boswellia tree, it has infused many cultures for centuries, and was a key element in perfumes from Meso­potamia and Egypt, dating back to the fourth millennium BC. It is mentioned more than 20 times in the Bible, and is universally known as one of the gifts brought to Jesus by the Wise Men at his nativity.

Despite a long history of cultivation, however, and a great deal of research dedicated to it, the exact nature of the molecules that create its distinctive fragrance has re­­mained elusive, not least because, as the researchers found, olibanum acid exists in the resin only in trace amounts of less than one part per million.

The team, led by Nicolas Baldovini of the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, in France, used a combination of sophisticated scient­ific processes and their own sense of smell. The results of using a gas chromatograph to vaporise the resin were fed into two devices: a mass spectrometry detector; and a “sniffing port”, where a researcher smelt each aroma produced.

The researchers used three kilos of essential oil of frankincense from Somalia to isolate a purified sample of approx­imately one microgram of the acid, using a series of distil­lations, extractions, and chromato­graphy analyses. Then, to determine its molecular structure, they used nuc­lear magnetic resonance: a pro­cess similar to that employed by hospital scanners.

Finally, to prove that they had correctly identified it, they recreated it synthetically in the lab. The pro­cess has now been patented for use in the perfume industry.

Their findings were originally reported in October by the German scientific website Angewandte Chemie International Edition, and publicised by the journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Chemistry World, in an article by Fernando Gomollón-Bel. It was noted by Dr Peter Padley, a chemist and member of the Church in Wales. 

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