Reviving the Smell of Extinct Plants

Could we bring back the smell of an extinct flower? Five years ago, this question started us off on an unexpected adventure that’s led us through enormous collections of two hundred year old plant specimens and international art exhibitions, through collaborations with a paleogenomics lab, a smell researcher, and a multidisciplinary artist, and through lots of cutting edge synthetic biology. The culminating immersive installation where you can smell the lost flowers, titled Resurrecting the Sublime, in collaboration with artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, and with the support of IFF Inc, has been shown at a number of art museums in Europe and will be having its US debut this week as part of Nature—the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial opening May 10 in New York.

This short film tells the story of Resurrecting the Sublime, from the herbarium to the lab to the art gallery:

A lot of people at Ginkgo and beyond have been involved in bringing this project to life, from the earliest explorations about whether it would be possible with Jason Kakoyiannis all the way through the first exhibition opening. In 2016 I visited the Harvard Herbarium with my former colleague Dawn Thompson on a mission to find extinct plants. Together, we combed the stacks for preserved specimens of plants from the IUCN extinction list. From the more than 5 million samples in the herbarium, we found about a dozen extinct specimens that we could take tiny bits of leaf from. We worked with the UC Santa Cruz Paleogenomics lab to uncover sequences of DNA involved in fragrance production, which our colleague Jue Wang stitched together electronically into two thousand different versions. A team led by organism engineer Christian Ridley used those sequences to build strains of yeast harboring the extinct DNA, and test engineer Scott Marr measured the lost scents each strain made.

We focused our attention on three plants:

  • The Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, or Maui hau kuahiwi in Hawaiian, was indigenous to ancient lava fields on the southern slopes of Mount Haleakalā, on Maui, Hawaii. Its forest habitat was decimated by colonial cattle ranching, and the final tree was found dying in 1912.
  • The Orbexilum stipulatum, or Falls-of-the-Ohio Scurfpea, was last seen in 1881 on Rock Island in the Ohio River, near Louisville, Kentucky, before US Dam No. 41 finally flooded its habitat in the 1920s.
  • The ‘Leucadendron grandiflorum (Salisb.) R. Br.’, the Wynberg Conebush has a more complex story, which we are still uncovering. It was last seen in London in a collector’s garden in 1806; its habitat on Wynberg Hill, in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, was already lost to colonial vineyards. This flower may prove to be completely lost: the project is bringing to light that specimens around the world may historically have been incorrectly identified.
    • The Harvard herbarium specimen of Hibiscadelphus wilderianus
      The Harvard herbarium specimen of Hibiscadelphus wilderianus. Photo credit: Grace Chuang

      Once we had the list of molecules that the extinct DNA sequences were making in our yeast, we worked with smell researcher Sissel Tolaas to compose those molecules into a complex smell. Sissel used her deep expertise in chemistry and smell to reconstruct the flowers’ smells in her lab, using identical or comparative smell molecules to what we measured in the foundry. Smelling Sissel’s sketches for the first time was magical and uncanny—we were smelling something impossible.

      In large scale immersive installations designed by Daisy Ginsberg, fragments of Sissel’s smells diffuse through the air. As you smell the extinct flower and experience the geology of the lost landscape, you become part of an inverted natural history display—the human is the specimen on view.

      Resurrecting the Sublime at the St. Etienne Design Biennial. Photo credit: Pierre Grasset.

      For me as a biologist, art has been a really important way for me to ask questions and explore the many facets of biotechnology and its place in society. For extinctions that were caused by the actions of humans, asks us to contemplate our actions, and potentially change them for the future. I’m so thrilled to have been able to collaborate with so many brilliant scientists and artists on this project. The experience has been truly sublime. For more info, check out


      La Fabrique du Vivant
      Centre Pompidou
      Paris, France
      February 18, 2019 – April 15, 2019

      Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival
      The XXII Triennale di Milano
      Milan, Italy
      March 1, 2019 – September 15, 2019

      Resurrecting the Sublime
      Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne
      Saint-Étienne, France
      March 21, 2019 – April 22, 2019

      Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial
      Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
      New York, USA
      May 10, 2019 – January 20, 2020

      Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial
      Cube design museum
      Kerkrade, Netherlands
      May 10, 2019 – January 20, 2020

      AI: More Than Human
      Barbican Centre
      London, UK
      May 16, 2019 – August 26, 2019

      Installation at La Fabrique du Vivant, Centre Pompidou. February 2019. Photo: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.


      Christina Agapakis, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas

      Patrick Boyle, Alex Carlin, Natsai Audrey Chieza, Grace Chuang, Jason Kakoyiannis, Jason Kelly, Scott Marr, Krishna Patel, Kit McDonnell, Yakov Peckersky, Christian Ridley, Dayal Saran, Atsede Siba, Dawn Thompson, Jue Wang

      IFF Inc.

      Dr Michaela Schmull, Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge

      Dr Joshua Kapp and Dr Beth Shapiro, Paleogenomics Lab, University of California, Santa Cruz

      Twist Bioscience

      Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Ana Maria Nicolaescu (3D artist), Johanna Just, Ness Lafoy, Ioana Mann, Stacie Woolsey, Nicholas Zembashi


      Sam Conran

      Factory Settings


      Dr Nicholas Hind, Dr Gerhard Prenner, Harry Smith, The Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Dr Anthony Roberts, Changing Lives Through Nature, Cape Town; Dr Tony Rebelo, SANBI, Cape Town

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