Corals may be key to sunburn pill

Corals may be key to sunburn pill

Corals may be key to sunburn pill

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 team leader added. The team also said that they were now “very close to being able to reproduce this compound in the lab”.

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.”

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 photosynthesis.