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Study: Coral Sunscreen Pill


LONDON—Preliminary findings of a three-year project funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is uncovering promising results in sunscreen. Researchers at King’s College discovered coral’s ability to produces natural sunscreen compounds that protect it from damaging UV rays, possibly warranting the use of these compounds for use in a novel sunscreen for humans. Coral isn’t the first marine ingredient to be studied for its role in sun protection. In fact, scientists are finding the animal coral has a unique symbiotic partnership with the algae that lives inside it, which use photosynthesis to make food for the coral and the coral waste products are used by the algae for photosynthesis. Coral has to live in shallow water because photosynthesis needs sunlight to work, meaning they’re more susceptible to sunburn.

“We already knew 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 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 fish that feed on the coral also benefit from this sunscreen protection, so it is clearly passed up the food chain. This led us to believe 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 a tablet, which would work in a similar way. We are very close to being able to reproduce this compound in the lab, and if all goes well we would expect to test it within the next two years."

In August, the King’s team collected coral samples for analysis from the Great Barrier Reef, a collaboration with Dr. Walter Dunlap from the Australian Institute for Marine Science and Professor Malcolm Shick from the University of Maine.

Long-term, researchers would like to determine whether these processes could also be used for developing sustainable agriculture in the Third World, as these natural sunscreen compounds found in coral could be used to produce UV-tolerant crop plants capable of withstanding harsh tropical UV light.

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