Scientists discover what gives frankincense its smell

A gum resin from the boswellia tree, frankincense has been used for centuries by humans for its sweet yet woody aroma

A team of scientists from France have discovered the components that give one of the world’s oldest fragrances its odour.

Nicolas Baldovini and his team from the Institut de Chimie de Nice have found that two molecules are responsible for the distinctive smell of frankincense, which is often burned as part of religious ceremonies.

Frankincense, also called olibanum, is a gum resin that originates from the bark of boswellia trees found in countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The two molecules discovered to give frankincense its ‘old church’ odour are (+)-trans- and (+)-cis-2- octylcyclopropyl-1-carboxylic acids. Up until now, scientists have struggled to identify the olfactory components of this substance due to the lack of precise methods of analysis.

The odorous substances are only present in frankincense in a few hundred ppm2, making them hard to detect. Meanwhile, only the human nose is sensitive enough to detect these components in small quantities in a mixture, therefore, a group of researchers trained to recognise the odour were assigned to help the scientists.

After isolating a purified sample of roughly 1mg of two odourant constituents, the team determined the molecular structure using nuclear magnetic resonance.

The discovery will allow perfumers to produce these molecules artificially in unlimited amounts.