Never mind the goopy, streaky mess that sunblock leaves in its wake; a pill that prevents sunburn could be available in as little as five years, according to British scientists. The secret lies in coral, which produces natural sunscreen compounds to shield itself from harmful ultraviolet rays. By analyzing samples from the Great Barrier Reef, researchers at King’s College in London are beginning to identify the genetic and biochemical processes behind the sunscreen-manufacturing mechanism. The next step? Synthesizing them in digestible tablet form to protect human skin and eyes.

UNDER THE SEA

Coral is a marine animal that works symbiotically with the algae living inside it. The algae uses photosynthesis to create food for the coral, which, in turn, expels waste that nourishes the algae. Because photosynthesis requires sunlight to work, coral must live in shallow water, an arrangement that also leaves it vulnerable to sun damage.

Beyond skin protection, the research could also be used to produce UV-tolerant crops in the tropics.

“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.” says Paul Long, a senior lecturer from the Institute of Pharmaceutical Science at King’s College. “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.”

The research team, Long adds, is “very close” to reproducing the compound in the lab, and tests could begin within the next two years. Beyond skin protection, the research could also be used to produce UV-tolerant crops in the tropics. “This could be a way of providing a sustainable nutrient-rich food source, particularly in need for Third World economies,” Long adds.

+ Press release

+ Kings College

[Via The Guardian]