Researchers from King's College London have recently discovered a natural compound produced by coral that could be suitable for use in a new type of sunscreen for humans, and it may even come in a pill! As coral is generally found in shallow waters, it therefore naturally produces a type of "sunscreen" to protect itself from the sun's UV rays. It is this natural sunscreen that scientists hope to synthetically re-create for human use.
"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," says Dr Paul Long, Senior Lecturer from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Science at King's College.
In collaboration with Dr Walter Dunlap from the Australian Institute for Marine Science and Professor Malcolm Shick from the University of Maine, the King's College researchers recently traveled to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to collect coral samples for laboratory analysis. The study has led the researchers to believe that the algae living within the coral creates the "sunscreen" compound, which then protects both the coral and algae from the sun.
Furthermore, the scientists noted that the fish that feed on the coral also benefited from this natural sunscreen, "so it is clearly passed up the food chain," says Dr. Long. "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."
If the team are successful in recreating this natural sunscreen, it may also have a use in developing countries. The compound could be used to produce UV-tolerant crop plants capable of withstanding harsh tropical sunlight.
"This could be a way of providing a sustainable nutrient-rich food source, particularly in need for Third World economies," concludes Dr. Long. "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."
The study has also found a clue as to why climate change is causing the death of coral beds. As sea level temperatures rise, the algae that lives within the coral dies and no longer produces the vital sun protecting compound. The coral is then exposed to harmful UV rays and coral bleaching occurs. In 1998, global temperature variations caused coral bleaching to occur in 16 percent of the world's coral reefs. The King's College researchers hope that their study will help contribute to the conservation of coral reefs worldwide.