Medieval Jewish rabbis would get around the perennial problem of domestic staff by whipping up a golem or two from clay. Being unable to speak (speech implies a soul and only Yahweh had that franchise) golems are ideal servants. Which made the creation of the first synthetic chromosome by Maryland biologist Craig Venter in 2008, so important.
If a cell is thought of as a tiny computer, then a chromosome supplies the operating system – molecular Windows or Unix, if you like. Natural chromosomes are double helixes of DNA understood by the tragic mathematician Alan Turing and his eponymous computing machine decades before the chemical structure was decoded by Watson and Crick.
With synthetic DNA now possible thanks to Dr. Venter (and equally controversial for economic and moral reasons), the next step on the road to all-singing, all-dancing golems is to put the ghost back in the machine by injecting synthetic chromosomes into a bacterium and rebooting the cell, hijacking its growth and reproduction. Golems galore and tiny ones too that can serve as your own army of personal servants – so tiny it looks like you did it all yourself, allowing you to get on with watching Fiddler on the Roof.
These nanobots will transform the way we live. For starters, they have the potential to solve the looming non-renewable resource crunch when the oil runs out. They will also transform our morals. Will an organism with synthetic DNA be “alive” in the same way that those fashioned from natural DNA are? Of course at a chemical level, the molecules are the same for captive servants and golems in the same way that pyrazines in Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes and green peppers are.
Captives are the names given to synthetic molecules used to produce the 600-odd new perfumes released onto the perfume counter each year. According to Chandler Burr, perfume columnist at the New York Times, there are new captives aplenty. Compounds like “Zinarine, natural green and tomato leaf notes with aspects of mint, fig, hyacinth; Petitgrain Paradisamide, a long-lasting, fresh tropical fruit note with nuances of grapefruit, rhubarb and cassis; and Florymoss, a floral, green, mossy note which blends well with floral fruity and spicy accords.”
Captives are produced by a quartet of chemical firms you’ve never heard of: Symrise of Holzminden, Germany; Givaudan of Geneva; International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) of New York; and Takasago of Tokyo. And its big business indeed: in 2006 Givaudan sold $2.6 billion worth of captives.
Just imagine the marvelous wines you could produce with captives: a splash of Petitgrain Paradisamide, being long-lasting, would transform Crouchen Blanc from a six month screamer into a serious stayer while Florymoss is just the pick-me-up SA Merlot needs to make it more exciting.
It makes serious ecological sense. With sandalwood forests in India decimated by demand from the perfume industry, the artificial analogue Hindanol (someone in the lab evidently has a sense of humour) is more effective than the natural compound. Being more diffusive, it can bring the smell of sandalwood to places not reached by the natural compound – hence its use in Johnson & Johnson’s self-tanning product Holiday Skin. With real sandalwood costing upwards of $1700/Kg, J&J accountants are not complaining and there are all those carbon credits earned by not flying to India, too.
With vast tracts of fynbos in the Western Cape replaced by a mono-culture of that pernicious invader species, Vitis vinifera (aka the grape vine) artificially flavoured wines have a lot going for them. As vineyards increasingly go higher, steeper, more remote and more expensive to work in a relentless search for bankable terroir, a laboratory solution seems sensible. It’s also more efficient. Synthetic jasmine is more concentrated than the odd trace found in Pinot Noir or Chenin Blanc, so barrel and tank selection can be made much more efficient through the addition of a few well chosen molecules.
The Swartland, historically the wheat basket of the Western Cape, is fast disappearing under a blanket of vines as surfers like Eben Sadie, Willie de Waal and Adi Badenhorst wow the pundits and readers of Wine Spectator with their blends, with the problem only exacerbated when local palates catch on. The pale fields of waving wheat are being replaced by dark green jungles of vines that are much less efficient reflectors of sunlight. The result is localized global warming with a concomitant effect on the natural environment.
Yet even the idea of chemical additives in wine is enough to set anorak bowties rotating faster than the propeller of Robert Redford’s Tiger Moth in Out of Africa. In can’t be health reasons, as captive chemicals are put through more rigorous toxicology tests than Paris Hilton. And it can’t be fashion, as those twin avatars of celebrity, David and Victoria Beckham, use synthetic musk rather than the secretions of a musk deer to power their perfume Intimately Night. As does Sarah Jessica Parker in her scent, called Lovely. Personally, I’d prefer the test tube to deer scrapings any day.
A recent perfume from Davidoff, called Silver Shadow Attitude, is fueled by a captive called Thesaron, “a mixture of a just-picked apple and a rose in its prime.” Which indicates the true power of chemical captives. There are no new colours and the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg aside, very few new sounds. But the laboratories of international fragrance houses are producing new smells aplenty. Thousands a year, in fact. Burr quotes Ned Polan, vice president for fragrance ingredient research at IFF, that captives allow perfumers to recreate smells found in nature and create new, wholly unknown ones.
“There are no new colors to see and very few new sounds, but we are actually creating new, unique smells no one has ever smelled before,” Mr. Polan said. It is, quite literally, as if a paint company could make a new shade of blue” or a winemaker had access to a totally new cultivar. With smell accounting for over 80% of the enjoyment of wine, captive Cabernets served by restaurant golems you don’t need to tip, are closer than you think.