The concept of a ‘sunscreen pill’ is getting closer to reality with the news that researchers from King’s College London have discovered how coral produces natural sunscreen compounds to protect itself from UV rays. The team says it has begun to uncover the genetic and biochemical processes behind how these compounds are produced and hopes to recreate them synthetically in the laboratory for use in sun protection.
The King’s College team, working with Walter Dunlap from the Australian Institute for Marine Science and Malcolm Schick from the University of Maine USA, and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, collected samples for analysis from the Great Barrier Reef.
Coral has a unique symbiotic partnership with algae living inside it whereby the algae use photosynthesis to make food for the coral and the coral waste products are used by the algae for photosynthesis. Because photosynthesis needs sunlight to work corals must live in shallow water, making them vulnerable to sunburn.
“We already knew that coral and some algae can protect themselves from the harsh UV rays in tropical climates by producing their own sunscreens but, until now, we didn’t know how,” said project leader Paul Long, senior lecturer from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Science at King’s College London. “What we have found is that the algae living within the coral makes a compound that we think is transported to the coral which then modifies it into a sunscreen for the benefit of both the coral and the algae.
“Not only does this protect them both from UV damage, but we have seen that fish that feed on the coral also benefit from this sunscreen protection, so it is clearly passed up the food chain.”
Long believes this could form the basis of a sunscreen pill, stating: “If we can determine how this compound is created and passed on, we could biosynthetically develop it in the laboratory to create a sunscreen for human use, perhaps in the form of the tablet, which could work in similar way.”
If all goes to plan, King’s College scientists hope to test the synthetic compound within the next two years.