Genetic secrets of sandalwood unlocked

By Natsumi Penberthy 18 September 2013
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Discovery of the genes behind sandalwood oil may boost production of this precious resource.

RESEARCHERS AT THE University of Western Australia (UWA) say their discovery of key genes used to produce sandalwood oil may help to boost production of this precious resource in trees.

Oil from our own native species – one of 18 or so species worldwide – was Western Australia’s first major export, dating back to the 1840s. 


Mature trees, which dot the outback of WA, are extremely valuable as sandalwood remains one of the world’s most sought after essential oils, scenting everything from Chanel N°5 to joss sticks.

“Sandalwood oil, extracted from the heartwood in tree stems and roots, is highly sought after by the fragrance and perfume industry,” says lead researcher Dr Liz Barbour, at UWA in Perth.

Special properties of sandalwood oil

Within the trees themselves, the oil acts as an antifungal agent and insecticide, keeping deadly infections away from the core.

The compounds that produce the fragrance of sandalwood oil have such a complex structure that it is not currently possible to synthesise them artificially. This means nearly the entire world supply comes from wild trees and plantations in India and Australia.

A large plantation in WA’s Kimberley region planted in 1999 has begun to mature this year, and in time the processing plant attached to it may produce up to 60 per cent of the entire world supply. However, the amount of oil produced by individual trees is “hugely variable”, says Liz.

“When we planted trees and pulled them out eight years later we found only about 30 per cent of them had oil.”

Doubling production of sandalwood oil

Now that they have discovered some of the genes responsible for the production of the sweet-smelling oil, Liz’s team believe they may be able to genetically engineer trees that always produce oil and at double the current yields.


This could potentially increase oil harvests by more than 50 per cent, she says, or even more if they are able to grow fat trees with dense heartwood, and stimulate oil production at a younger age.

Liz also hopes the findings, published this week in the journal Plos One, will lead to the production of a compound that could be used to “stretch out” natural sandalwood oil by increasing its volume.

These advances may be only three years away, say the scientists, if the team can secure funding to continue their research.