To quote Yoda, sunscreen good, no sunscreen bad. Well as it turns out, sunscreen from corals could be even better, according to a study out of King’s College London and the Australian Institute for Marine Science based on samples of Acropora coral collected from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (oh what I would give to be a grad student in that lab).
When I say coral, I mean the coral animal backbone and the algae that live inside of it. The two engage in a fairly straightforward symbiotic relationship: the coral provides shelter, while the algae share their sugar, produced through photosynthesis. What the guys at Kings College found is that these algae produce natural sunscreen compounds to protect from nasty UV rays, which damage their external cells.
Although the team is still looking into how the algal cells produce these compounds, they think that the compound gets transported to the coral cells where it undergoes some sort of chemical modification to become more sunscreen-esque. And from there, fish that nibble on the corals retain some of the benefits of UV-ray protection, and so on down the food chain.
This actually isn’t all that surprising when you think about it. In order to get high photosynthetic yields – or lots of grub – corals tend to grow in shallow water, and because the UV rays have a shallower depth of water to pass through, corals, like humans, have to deal with icky sunburns.
One thing that seemed especially interesting about this study is that the team wants to try to use the compound to create UV-tolerant and thus more sustainable crops in underdeveloped countries. Granted they also want to brew up a lotion for human use, solving world hunger = clearly a big deal. If anything this is all the more reason to yell at the dumb tourists who trample coral reefs in Hawaii and along the Gold Coast. (“FLIPPERS ARE FOR SWIMMING NOT CLUMSY WALKING! DUH.”)
The King’s College London team is currently trying to replicate the compound in the lab. From there they hope to develop the lotion and eventually a pill-form to avoid awkward handprint tans, among other things.
For more details check out the BBC’s write-up.