Lasting Scents of the Mountain of the Gods

The smell of a product affects how we react to it. It’s no surprise, then, that fragrances are an integral part of more than 25 product categories – from cosmetics such as perfumes, creams and deodorants to household products such as detergents and cleaners. Indeed, the global fragrance ingredients market was worth more than $8 billion in 2021.

Of the approximately 3,000 fragrance ingredients that exist, the vast majority are not produced sustainably. They are based on fossil resources and usually rely on energy-intensive production methods or, in rare cases, involve the use of materials obtained from rare plants and endangered animals.

Freideriki Michailidou thinks it’s time for that to change. The 31-year-old Greek native works as a teacher and researcher in the toxicology lab headed by Professor Shana Sturla at ETH Zurich and was most recently a junior researcher at the Collegium Helveticum. Michailidou wants to use the latest biochemical techniques to create new – and above all sustainable – fragrances from natural and renewable raw materials.

This allows her to combine her passion for perfumes, which she makes in her spare time from essential oils, with her professional scientific interest in green chemistry: “I cannot and do not want to imagine a world without perfumes, but future production should be made more environmentally friendly.

An early fascination with the natural sciences

Freideriki Michailidou, Frida to her friends, grew up in the city of Ioannina, in northern Greece. By age nine, she had already developed a love for the natural sciences, playing with her chemistry kit and devouring every issue of National Geographic she could get her hands on. Her mother is a teacher and encouraged her to pursue her passion for science. “I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a chemist or a biologist,” says Michailidou.

She eventually turned to chemistry, studying in Thessaloniki, Lyons and St. Andrews, where she researched biocatalysis as part of writing her doctoral dissertation. It is a technology that uses enzymes and living micro-organisms as catalysts for chemical reactions. “In nature, enzymes facilitate a host of chemical reactions. This is an inherent property of enzymes that we can use in the lab,” explains Michailidou.

Biocatalysis was suddenly on everyone’s lips in 2018, when Frances Arnold shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with George Smith and Gregory Winter for her work on directed enzyme evolution. Many people still hope that this is what will make the chemical industry greener. One of them is Michailidou, who after working for a short stint in industry and then as a postdoc in Münster, came to ETH Zurich as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie scholar in 2019. Already at the time, Michailidou already had the ambition to use biocatalysis to produce new sustainable fragrances.

Fragrances made from rare flowers

To expand the range of fragrances available, Michailidou has chosen an arduous path. She decided to analyze and imitate the properties of rare flowers that only grow on the highest mountain in Greece, Mount Olympus, where they give off unique scents.

No one else had ever decoded the scents of these particular flowers. As well as growing over 2,100 meters above sea level, they are protected by conservation laws that prohibit people from picking them. “The challenge was to collect the volatile odor molecules, which normally attract bees and other pollinators, without damaging the plant,” says Michailidou.