Drug Development

Eau de poop: Bill Gates tests a new way to sweeten the world’s worst odors


Bill Gates, credit WEC

Bill Gates is well known as an enthusiastic investor in biotech, both as a tech mogul as well as a leader of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is always on the hunt for new drugs that can benefit the world’s poor.

Now, he’s taking a molecular-level interest in smells.

It turns out that of about 350 olfactory receptors in the brain, only a handful are used to recognize foul odors, even though there are hundreds of chemical compounds included in the world’s worst smells. At Gates’ request, a Swiss company named Firmenich created a fragrance that blocks those specific receptors. So when Gates was recently exposed to a smell that combines the worst of sewage, sweat and overripe cheese, all he got was the sweetness from the fragrance they concocted. The smell was blocked.

Firmenich’s research was inspired by a simple need that Gates wants to satisfy. Billions of people in the world either do not have access to toilets or use facilities that dump the waste out untreated. Gates wants to urge the use of more pit latrines that would provide better sanitation, but the odors are keeping many people away.

Science may provide the best answer to the sanitation challenge, provided they can offer the world’s poor a cheap new perfume that will turn the most fouling smelling places on the planet into a garden of delightful odors.

They’re doing some test studies in Africa and India now to see how this works on the ground. Ultimately, billions of people could be introduced to Gates’ new poop perfume.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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