Science explains why a rotting durian caused an entire university to evacuate

May 2, 2018 - 1:27 PM
A durian vendor waits for customers at a market in Bangkok, Thailand, April 26, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

News of a university evacuation in Melbourne, Australia caused by the odor emitted by a rotting durian fruit has united Asians in defending the region’s pungent but prized produce.

Around 500 students of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University were evacuated by authorities after reports of a foul stench that was suspected to be caused by chemical hazard or gas leak.

Fire authorities would later find out while surveying school premises that the source of the smell was a durian fruit left rotting in a cupboard.

Fans of the delicacy took exception to the university’s reaction.

The science behind the smell

Some big names in the world of culinary criticism have in fact taken note of Asia’s “King of fruits.”

Renowned culinary figure Anthony Bourdain is reportedly a fan, despite having used strong imagery in describing its scent.

Another authority in gastronomic matters, food writer Richard Sterling, has been quoted to have given an expletive-laden description of the durian’s smell.

Andrew Zimmern, host of “Bizarre Foods,” a show dedicated to exotic food around the world, gagged when he faced the legend durian.

In 2012, the Smithsonian explored the science behind the smell. It pointed to a study by Asian scientists that uncovered at least 50 different compounds present in its chemical makeup. Each compound was associated with at least one odor. In other words, the durian’s overpowering smell may just be the product of several, clashing odors.

The study published by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry can be found here.

Just last year, Popular Science reported on a study conducted by Singaporean scientists exploring the genetic makeup of the durian. Their findings revealed that the durian has a familiar but unlikely ancestor: the cacao plant.

“It’s almost like you cloned yourself, and you have one copy of yourself go and do the housework and cleaning and so forth so the other one can go on and do all sorts of different things,” said Patrick Tan, author of the study while describing the surprising genetic similarities between cacao and durian.

However, the durian evolved in such a way that it made additional copies of genes that created sulfuric compounds. It’s these compounds, according to the scientist, that cause the durian’s overpowering smell.

A delicacy and a luxury 

Even as many continue to grimace at its smell, the durian will always be a source of pleasure for its loyal fanbase, especially in Asia.

The durian’s considerably high price is enough proof of persistent demand for the fruit.

According to reports from Davao last year, where durian can easily be found, the fruit may cost anywhere between P60 to P100 per kilo, and even higher during the city’s Kadayawan festival.

Singapore’s Michelin Guide recently released a guide to finding the best and most affordable durian in the country. Certain kinds of durian apparently cost up to SGD $26, or P1,014 per kilogram.