Artist and genetic engineers re-create the imagined scents of long-extinct flowers

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg collaborated with biotechnologists and a scent researcher to harness the tools of synthetic biology to reproduce approximations of extinct flowers' smells. They extracted DNA fragments from preserved flower samples, compared those to existing species, resynthesized the gene sequences, and then inserted those genes into yeast to produce the scents. Of course these are only best-guesses, but the concept gets Ginsberg's point across.

"What we end up with is a blurry picture of the past, a false yet powerful memory, she says of the project, titled "Resurrecting the Sublime. "But experiencing this creates an emotional, physical connection with the natural world. It is that sense of awe and terror and nature's fragility in the face of human devastation."

From Scientific American:

Which were the three flowers you chose to resurrect?

The Hibiscadelphus wilderianus Rock, or Maui hau kuahiwi, grew in ancient lava fields in Maui, Hawaii. It was decimated by colonial cattle ranching, and the last tree died in 1912. The Orbexilum stipulatum was last seen in Kentucky in 1881 before it went extinct and its cultivation failed. In the 1920s a dam completely destroyed its habitat. The Leucadendron grandiflorum, originally from Wynberg Hill, behind Table Mountain in Cape Town, was lost to colonial vineyards. It was last seen in a collector's garden in London in 1805[…]

How did your gallery installation capture and transmit that smell to visitors?

The installations are set up like traditional natural history dioramas. But instead of having a stuffed animal as the center of an extinction story, you, the human, are in the frame. In the version at the Natural History Museum, Bern, Switzerland, visitors enter the back of the diorama, turn the corner, and suddenly find themselves in a room containing no sign of living nature, just its traces: limestone boulders, the smell of the lost flower, the soundscape of its lost habitat, all whilst being watched by others. The intention is to make you slightly uncomfortable, to say: "this extinction is because of us."

image (cropped): Hibiscadelphus Wilderianos, Ludwig Radlkofer, and Joseph Francis Charles Rock (Public Domain)