Ever wondered how your backyard chicken can cluck around all day in summer without roasting, or how fish swim in sun-drenched waters without frying? A team of researchers from Oregon State University believe they have found the answer; that prehistoric natural genetic engineering left many birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians with the ability to produce a compound that protects their skin from ultraviolet rays. Which is to say, they secrete their own sunscreen—and it might just point to new, better ways for us humans to protect ourselves.


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The research—which was just published in the eLife journal—determines that a diverse number of creatures, from farmyard chickens to green sea turtles, carry a gene with the capacity to produce a compound called gadusol. This compound has long been known to exist in certain algae, fungi and marine invertebrates, and the researchers believe that it may have transferred from there to other creatures. Because it’s so valuable, it’s “been retained and passed along for hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution,” according to the report.

Related: Can drinkable sunscreen protect your skin from the inside out?

Though never—as of yet—to humans or other mammals. But the OSU College of Pharmacy team has found a way to naturally produce gadusol in high volumes using yeast—and they believe that this might, with further development, have a utility in the production of cosmetics, lotions and sunscreens. Furthermore, project lead Taifo Mahmud considers that a “conceptual possibility is that ingestion of gadusol could provide humans a systemic sunscreen, as opposed to a cream or compound that has to be rubbed onto the skin.”

It’s a concept that is equal parts fascinating and alarming in a whole genetic manipulation way—but with UV exposure accounting for 90 percent of all nonmelanoma skin cancers, and 86 percent of melanomas—not to mention a its role in signs of aging, the sun-protection industry is big business, and this may well spark some serious interest.

+ De novo synthesis of a sunscreen compound in vertebrates, eLife

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