This Is Why the Sea Smells Like the Sea
by Owen James Burke
(Image: “Sea Smells” by Victor Kerlow)
What is that smell when you’re miles from the beach but you still get that salty, sharp smell that whelms your senses as you come down the seaward side of a mountain or crest? Maybe your eyes don’t know it, but your senses of taste and smell sure do.
Microbiologist Benjamin Wolfe of Tufts University recently found himself experiencing these sensations of the sea, but he wasn’t on the seashore; he was in a cheese cave in Vermont, 150 miles from the sea with his nose in a Petri dish full of yeast. He then asked himself, “What are the chemicals that actually create these ocean flavors?”
There are three, says Wolfe: Dimethyl sulfide (DMS), a sulfury scent produced by bacteria eating dying plankton, Dictyopterenes, or seaweed sex pheromone, and Bromophenols, a class of chemical compounds, which in high concentrations produce the iodine-rich, briny scent that we associate with extremely fresh fish, oysters and crabs.
DMS, which is largely produced by bacteria that eat dying plankton. Along with food scientists, he attributes the DMS flavor to “seashore funk,” that sulfury, pungent air that can be associated with mudflats at low tide. This is a compound you can also find in seaweed, mushrooms, beer and passed gas.
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