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New Sunscreens Could Come from Coral


If you have never seen sunburned coral, there’s a reason, and it’s not because it’s under water: coral produces substances that protect it from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. That fact prompted scientists to explore coral’s natural sunscreen compounds, which could lead to a new sunscreen for people.

Coral must also be protected from harvesting

Exposure to sunlight and UV radiation is the most important risk factor for any type of skin cancer. More than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed in more than 2 million people each year, and it is estimated that 20 percent of Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.

Researchers at King’s College London turned to the Great Barrier Reef to uncover how coral protects itself against UV rays. Coral is a sea animal that lives in shallow water because the algae that live inside it need sunlight to use photosynthesis to produce food for the coral. Living in shallow waters makes coral susceptible to sunburn.

The scientific team analyzed coral samples to identify how coral protects itself against UV rays. According to the head of the project, Dr. 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.”

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But the sunscreen benefits appear to not stop there. Long noted that “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.”

Coral and coral reefs are fragile environments and need to be protected, and so the goal of the scientists is to understand the process by which coral produces its own sunscreen compound. Long explained that “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.”

Producing a better sunscreen from what they learn from coral is not the only benefit the scientists see from their work. They also hope to see if natural sunscreen compounds in coral may help produce UV-tolerant food crops, which could help struggling Third World countries. As for a human sunscreen, Long said “if all goes well we would expect to test it within the next two years.”

King’s College London news release
Robinson JK. Journal of the American Medical Association 2005; 292:1541-43
Rogers HW et al. Archives of Dermatology 2010; 146(3): 283-87

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons