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Found: The Cause of Durian’s Oh-So-Unique Smell

The fruit’s genes work overtime to pump out sulphuric compounds.

Hello, durian.
Hello, durian. Public domain

Durian, a large and prickly fruit with a polarizing smell, has its detractors (“absolutely disgusting,” “like wet garbage,” “the most foul-smelling fruit in the world”) and its fans. Those fans, though, are very invested in understanding the secrets of this much-besmirched fruit. As the BBC reports, “a group of anonymous durian lovers” funded a project that sequenced the durian’s genome and located the exact source of its very special smell.

There have been previous inquiries into the fruit’s smell. Back in 2012, a group of German scientists analyzed the durian’s aroma extract using mass spectrometry and gas chromatography, Smithsonian reports. They found 50 compounds that contributed to durian’s smell, including four that were complete mysteries. The smell, according to this study, came from the unique combination of chemical odors that ranged from “fruity, skunky, metallic, rubbery, burnt, roasted onion, garlic, cheese, onion, and honey.”

More recently, though, a team of scientists identified the dominant compounds in the smell, which include aromas akin to “rotten onion” and “rotten cabbage.” But just two of those, they reported, could mimic the smell—one which smelled “fruity” and another that smelled like “roasted onion.”

This new study looked to identify the source of the smell. By mapping the durian’s 46,000 genes, a team from the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS) and Duke-NUS Medical School found a class of genes dedicated to producing volatile sulfur compounds, a major contribution to the fruit’s smell. These genes work overtime to make these compounds—part of the reason the durian doesn’t have just a faint, devilish whiff but a pungent, soaking smell.

The genetic analysis also traced durian’s origins back to the cacao plant. For people with a well-developed sense of smell this might not come as a surprise. One taster in this Buzzfeed video described the smell as “like a box of chocolates, but a bad box of chocolates.”

Consider that next time you enjoy a chocolate bar. Maybe durian isn’t so gross? After all, what we think tastes good often comes down to what we think should taste good.