Summer is approaching and it’s time to stock up on sunscreen. Fish won’t need to, however, as they can make their own. According to the latest study published in the journal eLife, researchers have found that a chemical compound called gadusol provides ultraviolet (UV) protection in fish, which could one day be used to improve sun protection for humans.
The sun, though essential for life on Earth, can be dangerous in excessive amounts. The UV radiation from the sun can damage the DNA in cells, which in humans can lead to dangerous conditions such as skin cancer. Fish that live on reefs or in the upper ocean are also affected by UV radiation. Scientists have previously assumed the UV-protective compounds fish use came from their environment, either through their diet or a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. Researchers from Oregon State University were therefore ‘surprised’ to find that some fish can make sunscreen themselves.
After discovering that gadusol was able to provide zebrafish with UV protection, researchers went on to identify the genes responsible for making it and reproduced the process in yeast. Interestingly, these same genes were also later found in a diverse group of animals including amphibians, birds and reptiles.
"The fact that the compound is produced by fish, as well as by other animals including birds, makes it a safe prospect to ingest in pill form," says Professor Taifo Mahmud, lead author of the study in a statement. Of course, further tests will need to verify the safety of gadusol before conclusions can be drawn. If it turns out to be safe and effective, Mahmud and his research team hope to use yeast to produce large quantities of gadusol for potential use in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics to improve UV protection.
"In the future it may be possible to use yeast to produce large quantities of this natural compound for sunscreen pills and lotions, as well as for other cosmetics sold at your local supermarket or pharmacy," says Mahmud.