A discovery made by scientists at the University of British Columbia could ease the need for ambergris, the product of a sperm whale's digestive system used as a fixative in high-end perfumes.

Joerg Bohlmann, a professor of botany and forest sciences, and post-doctoral researcher Philipp Zerbe announced last week that a similar compound can be made with the help of an extract from trees.

The scientists said they've identified a gene in balsam fir trees that could be used in the production of plant-based fixatives that could substitute for ambergris, which could make high-end perfumes more palatable to more people.

"The use of ambergris in the fragrance industry has been controversial," Bohlmann said in a news release.

"First of all, it’s an animal by-product and the use of such in cosmetics has been problematic, not to mention it comes from the sperm whale, an endangered species."

Ambergris is produced after a sperm whale eats sharp objects, such as shells and fish bones, and its gut produces a sticky slime to protect its digestive tract. Then the whale regurgitates the mixture — like a cat throwing up a fur ball. The vomit hardens into a rock-like substance that floats, and it washes up on beaches around the world.

This compound is then collected by beachcombers and sold to be added to high-end perfumes to help keep the fragrance on the body.

The search for an ambergris substitute is nothing new, Bohlmann said. In the Mediterranean, sage has been cultivated for the production of a plant-based alternative, but results have been variable and unpredictable.

His lab's discovery of a much more efficient process using the balsam fir gene could mean that production of a plant-based substitute could be both cheaper and more sustainable than ambergris collection.

"Certainly you would not have to go back anymore to pick up whale barf off of the beaches — or, in an extreme case, even hunting the whales and extracting these compounds from their intestines," he told CBC News on Friday.

With files from the CBC's Emily Elias