[Coral-List] Study of coral may lead to sunburn pill

Tracy Gill tracy.gill at noaa.gov
Thu Sep 1 08:00:21 EDT 2011


*Study of coral may lead to sunburn pill*

A study of underwater coral reefs by researchers of King's College 
London may lead to the development of a pill to prevent sunburn.

The research team hope within the next two years to test a compound 
based on one which shields coral against harmful ultraviolet rays.

"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," said Dr Paul Long, head of the team.

"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.

"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 King's team 
leader added.

"This led us to believe 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, which would work in a similar way.

"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," Long said.

"There would have to be a lot of toxicology tests done first but I 
imagine a sunscreen tablet might be developed in five years or so," he said.

"After taking the tablet you'd find the compound in your skin and eyes. 
Nothing like it exists at the moment."

This month, as part of the three-year project funded by the 
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the King?s team 
collected coral samples for analysis from Australia's Great Barrier 
Reef, in collaboration with Dr Walter Dunlap from the Australian 
Institute for Marine Science and Professor Malcolm Shick from the 
University of Maine USA.

A long-term goal of the King?s study is to look at whether the same 
processes could help sustainable agriculture in developing countries by 
using the natural sunscreen compounds found in coral to produce 
UV-tolerant crop plants capable of withstanding harsh tropical UV light.

"The part algae play in protecting itself and coral against UV is 
thought to be a biochemical pathway called the shikimate pathway, found 
only in microbes and plants," Long said.

"If we could take the part of the pathway that the coral generates, and 
put this into plants, we could potentially also utilise their shikimate 
pathway to make these natural sunscreens.

"If we do this in crop plants that have been bred in temperate climates 
for high yield, but that at present would not grow in the tropics 
because of high exposure to sunlight, this could be a way of providing a 
sustainable nutrient-rich food source, particularly in need for Third 
World economies."

Coral is an animal which has a unique symbiotic partnership with algae 
that lives inside it -- the algae use photosynthesis to make food for 
the coral and the coral waste products are used by the algae for 

Because photosynthesis needs sunlight to work, corals must live in 
shallow water, which means they are vulnerable to sunburn.

Long's team is also looking for clues as to how climate change is 
leading to coral bleaching, which can lead to coral death.

Bleaching occurs when a rise in sea temperature (by 2-3 degrees more 
than the summer average) means the algae is lost from the coral tissues, 
and if the relationship between algae and coral is not re-established, 
the coral may die.

In 1998, world-wide temperature anomalies resulted in a global bleaching 
event causing major coral mortality on 16 percent of the world?s coral 
reefs. As coral reefs provide a habitat for many forms of sea life, this 
can lead to significant loss.

Following the recent collection of samples from the Great Barrier Reef, 
the King's team is looking at the genetic and biochemical changes that 
occur when coral is exposed to light at higher water temperatures. It is 
thought that this study will contribute vital knowledge for management 
and conservation of reef biodiversity in the context of global warming.

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