‘The Google Maps for taste and scent’: Aromyx’s bio-chip sensor could fuel future reformulation, it says

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/DarthArt
© GettyImages/DarthArt

Related tags Taste Olfaction

Aromyx has developed a biosensor that places the human taste and olfactory receptors into a bio-chip, digitising taste and smell for empirical and tailored reformulation.

The company claims to have effectively cloned most of the 402 human olfactory receptors from the nose into a biochip prototype, called EssenceChip.

The information from this bio-chip, which is single-use in order to prevent contamination between tested substances, is then digitised using a software suite called Allegory.

Allegory stores the taste and scent data in a central cloud database, allowing Aromyx to measure and digitise taste and scent in an empirical, scalable and reproducible way.

California-headquartered Aromyx compares its technology to visual recognition developed in the 1980s and voice recognition in the 90s. 

It was originally funded developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a US agency that invests in technology for national security, which wanted to replicate sniffer dogs' sense of smell.

Dr J. Bruce German, professor and chemist at the food science and technology department of the University of California, has called Aromyx: “the Google maps for taste and scent [which] provides the flavour directions to get to any scent or taste”.

Rapid reformulation

However, Aromyx says the food industry could now be a big beneficiary.

“Food and beverage manufacturers have lost billions in the last decade to natural food alternatives,” ​the firm's CEO Chris Hanson told FoodNavigator. “This is only a small fraction of the total market share lost due to evolving consumer preferences toward healthier alternatives​.

“Aromyx envisions food and beverage manufacturers will use the EssenceChip and Allegory platform to identify the composite profile of a substance, such as Coca-Cola, and then substitute ingredients that reproduce or enhance characteristics of that substance. These ingredients can be chosen and triaged by the customer based on health or cost criteria.”

Complementing human sensory panels

The technology is not intended to replace human sensory panels but to provide “a necessary empirical complement”​.

Hanson says: “Taste and scent—like any sensory input including vision, auditory and touch—is subjective to a degree. The EssenceChip technology was designed to resolve the subjectivity, ambiguity, and irreproducibility of human sensory panels.”

The firm is already in pilot stage with “a few large companies​” and says large food and beverage corporations have shown “tremendous interest​”.

From California to London and Lausanne

While the technology may initially be affordable only to big multinationals, Aromyx ultimately wants it to be commercially viable for SMEs and university researchers.

This month it came one step closer to achieving this aim when it partnered with London- and Lausanne-based Rewired, a venture studio with a focus on robotics and a $100 million budget that it invests in applied science and technology to advance machine perception.

Through this partnership, which will explore novel applications of taste and smell for smart robots, Rewired is investing “a significant portion​” in Aromyx's multi-million dollar series seed round and will also provide access to scientific advisors and general partners.

Managing partner at Rewired  Gleb Chuvpilo described why exactly Aromyx’s technology caught the company's attention: “What is going to be most important is the ability for a robot to take in sensory information, to perceive the world around us, and to use this information in making cognitive, real-time, well-informed decisions. The actual hardware and software that allows machines to see, taste, touch, smell, hear will be foundational to building smart machines for all uses.

This will be the first time Rewired has worked with the food industry although another of its portfolio companies RaptorMaps develops specialised tools for precision agriculture, such as aerial drones equipped with Artificial Intelligence and machine-learning software that capture data on crop growth and harvest, increasing agricultural efficiency.

The technical bit

How does it actually work?

Hanson explains: “The EssenceChip biosensor replicates the human nose on a disposable and commercially viable SBS format multi-well plate. The biology of this biosensor involves a functional assay of lysed ex vivo yeast membranes containing human olfactory receptors. Because these cells are ex vivo, they no longer require feeding and maintenance, allowing the plates to be packaged and stored for extended periods. The EssenceChip can be read via a plate reader to gauge the abundance of odorant ligands bound to receptors. This data readout is then interpreted via the Allegory data analytics platform and compared against individual ingredients (component analysis) and composite formulas.”

Furthermore, the EssenceChip provides specific data corresponding to ligand-receptor relationships rather than the molecular structure of a given ligand provided by other chemical sensing techniques including gas chromatography. Molecular structure identification is less useful for olfaction and taste sense as receptors can bind to multiple molecules with similar stereochemistry. This data corresponding to ligand-receptor relationships is more tangible and practical for customers."

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