Resurrecting the Sublime

Resurrecting the Sublime

It is predicted that half of the world’s plant and animal species could go extinct due to human activity by 2050. Therefore is it possible to smell flowers driven to extinction by humans? Resurrecting the Sublime is a project that allows us to smell extinct flowers, lost due to colonial activity. Scents were created by extracting small amounts of DNA from specimens of three flowers stored at Harvard University’s Herbaria. Synthetic biology was used to predict and resynthesize gene sequences for fragrance-producing enzymes. This then made it possible to reconstruct the flowers’ smells using identical or comparative smell molecules.


Resurrecting the Sublime is a collaborative project between leaders in their fields to bring together scientific research and immersive installations. Artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg worked with smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, and a team of researchers and engineers from the biotechnology company Ginkgo Bioworks. The team at Ginkgo found a paper that explained how DNA could be taken from plants and animals preserved in a museum. But extracting this DNA is extremely difficult due to degradation over a long period of time. Eventually the team was able to extract the DNA after crushing. A genetic code was then obtained from a sequencing machine, which could then undertake modern sesquiterpene syntheses, which means that the genetic code was able to be pieced together and filled in. Although these sequences may not be exact, it meant that scent could be created from them, so a DNA printer was used to give the digital creations physical form. These molecules were put with yeast and fermented, meaning that the yeast begins to produce similar scent molecules. Finally, these were analysed with an “electric nose” that utilises mass spectrometry, allowing the yeast to be stripped away. 

Although a scent could be produced, it was difficult for a human to smell due to the volume of molecules created. So using Ginkgo’s findings, the scent artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas reconstructed the flowers’ smells in her lab, using identical or comparative smell molecules.


The flowers include:

+ The Hawaiian Hibiscadelphus wilderianus (or Mauihau kuahiwi in Hawaiian), which was wiped out by cattle farming on Maui island.

+ The Orbexilum stipulatum (or Falls-of-the-Ohio Scurfpea), whose natural habitat was wiped out by the flooding of a dam in the Ohio.

+ The ‘Leucadendron grandiflorum (Salisb.) R. Br.’ (or the Wynberg Conebush), that was removed to make space for colonial vineyards in Cape Town.


Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg created installations to showcase the scent of each flower. The multisensory experience diffuses the scents while visual aids help to look at the geology of where the flower would have been. The format of the exhibitions sees the human become the specimen on view, as you step into a glass room. A small rock sits near the scent diffusing nozzles, hinting at the ancient lava fields where the last Hibiscadelphus wilderianus was collected from on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The exhibition also features documentaries played on loop, showing images of the imagined landscape and flowers in the style of a painting. During the exhibition at London’s iconic Barbican Centre a cuboid hood hung from the ceiling. Inside the hood were four nozzles that slowly released the scents, created by Sissel, into the air around you. By using four nozzles which release different elements of the final fragrance you are able to speculate combinations based on an accompanying narrative.  Ginsberg states that the exhibitions are poignant to people as they now suddenly are being told of the flowers extinction. It does not bring the flower back, and the flower itself may not be the most beautiful or interesting flower. But by letting people experience something that has been lost due humans we empathise and begin to care more as we experience what it once was.



References :

Resurrecting The Sublime


Thanks to :

Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg 

Ginikgo Bioworks

Sissel Tolaas