Coral reefs, who knew?

A lovely turtle swimming through a tropical coral reef.
A lovely turtle swimming through a tropical coral reef.

Well actually we did. For a while now we have known that some coral reefs naturally produce compounds that protect them from the harmful UVA and B rays that damage cells. In order to understand how this is done and what the wider impacts on us as a species are we will need to explore corals in their natural environment.

So corals, are they some sort of marine plant?

No they are very much not that. Often when members of the general public are asked what they think corals are many realise that they don’t actually know and assume they are some sort of plant. Well you know what they say; ‘when you assume, it makes an ASS out of U and ME’ (Jerry Belson 1973). However, and this is the bit that confuses most, they do have a very close symbiotic relationship with algae with is a plant; meaning that they living together for mutual benefit. This relationship is so close in fact that most tropical shallow water corals have algae living inside their own tissues, in order to benefit best from this relationship. It is a combination of this partnership that leads to the production of a natural sun cream in some corals.

An example of the symbiotic relationship between a coral and algae.
An example of the symbiotic relationship between a coral and algae.

Why do corals need sun cream?

Scary but true!!
Scary but true!!

Well most animal cells regardless of the species can actually be heavily damaged from the effects of sun light, more specifically the Ultraviolet Rays in sunlight. There has been a significant amount of research done into how these rays interact with the cells of the human body and it is now, hopefully, common knowledge that too much unprotected exposure to sunlight will cause permanent skin damage and possibly lead to cancer developing. Similar damage is caused to most organisms, which have over the millennia developed ways to withstand it; thick fur, dark skin pigments, scales and in the case of corals a natural compound that is secreted over the surface of the coral tissue, a natural sun cream!

So how come it’s taken so long to figure out that we can use corals?

Good question. Well we knew that corals produced some sort of natural protection but it wasn’t until a paper was published in 1998 outlining how they do it, as Dr. Paul Long said: “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”. It’s thanks to compounds known as mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs) which, until then were just thought to be a common metabolites found in a diverse range of marine organisms. MAAs are compounds that absorb incoming UV rays, mainly in the wave length of 310 to 360nm, the harmful UVA and UVB rays. Now these MAAs are not actually produced by the coral themselves, but by the symbiotic algae that we talked about earlier. They are then transport to the coral tissues that convert them into a protective layer around the coral and there the algae as well.

How does this benefit us then?

Yes you might think ‘great good for the corals but they are endangered so we can’t just cultivate them off the reefs’! And yes you would be correct in thinking that but know that we know exactly how the process works we can replicate in synthetically in a lab. Using bacteria cultures we can quickly create huge quantities of these MAA compounds with relative ease and at a much lower cost, completely eliminating the possible damage to the actually coral reefs around the world which are highly protected. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have already been doing this and in the last couple of years and have successfully been able to use the MAAs to produce a suite of over 40 different compounds that are safe for use on human skin. These compounds are transparent and easily incorporated into current sun creams and lotions, there are expected to be available on the global market in the next year or two.

What’s this I’ve heard about a sun cream pill?

Hopefully this scenario will be not be prudent in the near future.
Hopefully in the future this will be irrelevant.

Well this is the goal that current research is working towards; it will be the culmination of decades of research and will represent the pinnacle of sun care protection. From observations on the tropical fish that predate on the corals it has been shown that the protective properties of the MAAs can actually be transfer up the food chain allowing the fish to produce their own natural sun cream. The hope is that if we can replicate this process then we may be able to just take a pill regularly, or even an inoculation at an early age that will allow you to produce your on natural skin cream whenever necessary. How ever much the pharmaceutical companies might hate it, we may never need sun cream again!!!

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