August 31, 2011
Coral Could One Day Be Used In Sunscreen Pill
British researchers studying coral in Australia´s Great Barrier Reef could create a pill that would prevent sunburn in people, The Telegraph is reporting. Despite living in shallow water, coral does not suffer from the harmful effects of UV rays as it is able to produce a "natural sunscreen."
Coral converts compounds produced by algae living inside it to make a sunscreen which protects both the coral and the algae from sunburn, the researchers discovered.
Lead researcher Dr. Paul Long from King´s College London explains that scientists had known for some time that coral and some algae could protect themselves from UV rays in tropical climates by producing their own sunscreens but, until now, they didn´t know how, The Guardian reports.
"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."
Studying the endangered Acropora coral, the researchers are able to synthetically replicate in the lab the key compounds from the surface of the coral that can resist the UV rays.
Dr. Long hopes to engineer the compounds in the lab so that they survive long enough in our bodies to enter the bloodstream and offer us some level of protection. "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," he tells BBC News.
The ultimate goal is to produce a pill that provides sun protection for the whole body. "It´s absolutely conceivable," said Long. "After taking the tablet you´d find the compound in your skin and eyes."
"There would have to be a lot of toxicology tests done first but I imagine a sunscreen tablet might be developed in five years or so. Nothing like it exists at the moment."
The research could eventually lead to sun-tolerant crops that boost world food supplies. Some plants already possess the same genetic pathway discovered in coral algae, said Long. Adding the extra genes from coral might make it possible to grow temperate crops, such as wheat and potatoes, in the tropics.
Long added: "If we do this in crop plants that have been bred in temperate climates for high yield, but that at present would not grow in the tropics because of high exposure to sunlight, this could be a way of providing a sustainable nutrient-rich food source, particularly in need for [developing] world economies."
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