Frankincense – much more than a fragrant smell

Incense burner

You may be familiar with frankincense through its role in the Christmas story, and its use in religious ceremonies. Frankincense has been used medicinally in the East for thousands of years, but recently scientists in the West have started to examine it, and find that incensole acetate (one of the molecules behind its distinctive odour) in particular has some interesting properties.

In 2008 it was discovered that the smoke from burning frankincense relieved depression and anxiety in mice; incensole acetate was identified as the compound responsible for this. Scientists wonder if this compound may be useful in treating brain injuries given its link with neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects.

Over 300 molecules are present in frankincense and boswellic acids are among the most well known. Archaeologists use their detection - using their characteristic mass spectra - to find frankincense in ancient artefacts. They are also believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and it has been suggested they may also have a role in cancer therapy.

In 2016 a group of researchers in France and Italy reported that they had found two very similar molecules that were responsible for the characteristic ‘endnote’ of frankincense, an ‘old church’ smell. Present in tiny amounts, these molecules have very intense smells and an unusual structure.  These molecules had never been made before, so the scientists devised a way of making them ‘from scratch’ to confirm their identities.

Frankincense is tapped from trees of the Boswellia species - which mainly grow in East Africa and India - solidifying to a resin. According to the great Greek chronicler Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BC), flying snakes known as drakontes lived under frankincense trees to guard them, but the snakes could be driven away by burning resin of the Liquidambar tree.

So the next time you receive frankincense perfume as a gift, or catch its residual odour in a church remember there is a lot more behind this remarkable resin.

For more info on Frankincense and the structure of its molecules visit Dr Simon Cotton’s full article:

Incensole and other molecules in frankincense, including incensole acetate

Discover more molecules on The Molecule of the Month - the long-running website with over 70 molecules described by Simon Cotton:

The Molecule of the Month