Can Smells Really Go Extinct?

Nothing quite jogs the memory or warms the soul like our sense of smell. Arguably, smell is as much a preserver of history as it is a warning of looming danger. While the wafting scent of a dirty diaper is enough to clear a room, the pleasant aroma of grandma's peach cobbler can uplift the spirits of everyone close enough to catch a whiff.

According to The Harvard Gazette, smells are intrinsically tied to emotion and memory because they glide through the limbic system, the section of our brain that is in charge of behavioral responses. Whether we realize it or not, we've all witnessed a smell die, like when a favorite restaurant closed down or when grandma became too old and frail to keep pulling cobblers out of the oven.

The magic happens when that scent is revived suddenly and unexpectedly. For example, you walk down an unfamiliar street and an aromatic scent from your childhood fills the air, sending a flood of sweet memories along with it. But what happens if a scent dies and never returns? Does that make it extinct? If so, is there anything science can do to save it?

Scents can go extinct and scientists want to save them

Discover reports that a scent can go extinct if the source creating its unique chemical compound disappears. Some examples of this include buildings that no longer exist and plants that no longer grow. On the surface, smells seem simple, but they're actually pretty complex. Essentially, a smell is a bit like a recipe for the nose, a very specific blend of volatile chemical compounds that come together to spark a sensory reaction.

The science of bringing smells back from extinction is nothing to turn your nose up at. It requires advanced preservation research and the use of state-of-the-art equipment. One laboratory is churning out such scents through a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machine, which is every bit as technologically perplexing as it sounds.

Noted researcher Cecilia Bembibre has implemented multiple methods to recapture extinct scents (via BBC). These methods break the smells down into singular compounds, which are then recorded. In some cases, even professional perfumers are getting in on the game. If such attempts are successful, there might be a time in the near future when you can go to a smell museum and experience the past like never before.