A rare Swiss apple is being hailed in the cosmetic and fashion world as an exciting anti-ageing breakthrough – even Michelle Obama is rumoured to be a fan.
Used in creams and serums, stem cells from the Uttwiler Spätlauber apple are said to protect skin cell regeneration and so delay the onset of wrinkles. The discovery was made by a Swiss company.
The November edition of the United States Vogue magazine went as far as to call the variety "the super-apple", and asked if the tree could be "the new fountain of youth".
The Uttwiler Spätlauber, which was first recorded in the 18th century, comes from canton Thurgau, in northern Switzerland.
It is well known for its excellent storability; it can stay fresh looking for up to four months after being harvested, long after other varieties have become wrinkled.
However, it has not been widely cultivated of late because of its sour taste and the number of trees have dwindled.
Having collected some samples, Swiss researchers set to work and found that the answer mostly lay in the amazing longevity of the apple's stem cells.
Humans have skin stem cells, which replenish and maintain the balance of cells within the skin tissue and regenerate tissue which has been damaged.
But with age, the number of skin stem cells decreases and their ability to repair the skin becomes less efficient. The result is – with added environmental damage like UV rays - a loss of skin vitality, and inevitably, wrinkles.
Mibelle Biochemistry, which developed the apple ingredient, found that the apple stem cells were protecting the skin stem cells from ageing.
"We thought there must be something in those apples which give them their long shelf life," said Beata Hurst, marketing and sales manager at Mibelle Biochemistry.
"We could show that the apple stem cells have a positive influence on the vitality of the skin stem cells, they made them more efficient and they can live longer," Hurst told swissinfo.ch.
The firm, which is a subsidiary of the big Swiss retailer Migros, used a novel technology to replicate the apple cells called PhytoCellTec™.
The apple ingredient has been snapped up by cosmetics companies in Europe, Asia, and the United States, including Lancôme and Chantecaille.
According to the Vogue article, style icon and presidential wife Michelle Obama buys a serum using the apple made by Clark's Botanicals, costing $355 (SFr361).
The Uttwiller Spätlauber was found in one of the collections belonging to ProSpecieRara, a foundation aiming to preserve traditional breeds of animals and plants in Switzerland.
ProSpecieRara director Béla Bartha told swissinfo.ch that there were only 20 Uttwiller Spätlauber trees left at present, which he said was not surprising. Some fruit varieties have between one and five trees left.
Saving rare species
Overall, ProSpecieRara has managed to preserve 1,800 varieties on 8,000 trees during its 25 years in operation, through collecting samples, growing them and then distributing them to people willing to look after them.
The Uttwiller Spätlauber is found on Hansrudolf Schweizer's farm in Neukirch in Thurgau.
Bartha said that ProSpecieRara operated an open source strategy, giving people access to the resources. It also ensures that this biodiversity is grown in the field, rather than stored gene banks, giving it a visibility.
The apple is not the only rare variety success story: a cross of two old potato breeds resulted in a blue potato which is now made into potato crisps, which are sold in supermarkets.
Bartha said that ProSpecieRara never dreamed when it put the Uttwiller Spätlauber into Schweizer's orchard that it would be successfully used in cosmetic production. This was, he said, not the aim.
But the case has served to highlight a cornerstone of the foundation's work, he pointed out, namely showing that old varieties house a genetic pool which could be harvested for new uses.
"We have undiscovered treasures in these collections," said Bartha.
Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch
Swiss apple, worldwide
Mibelle Biochemistry launched its PhytoCellTec™ Malus Domestica product on the international market in April 2008. Dr Fred Zülli, its business unit manager, said that the company started this research five years ago.
Around 100 companies worldwide use this apple ingredient, including at least three within Switzerland (including in Migros). Zülli said more products were likely next year and in 2011 because companies needed time to launch their products.
This raw material makes up around 1-2% of the final cosmetic product. Mibelle Biochemistry has estimated that turnover from the finished products containing this raw material is more than $100 million.
The products are also available in Switzerland, under the Zoé line made by Mibelle Cosmestics.