Researchers make sunscreen breakthrough with microorganisms

By Chris BARKER

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Ultraviolet, Sunscreen

Researchers make sunscreen breakthrough with microorganisms
Norwegian researchers have discovered a microorganism living in Trondheim Fjord which they believe can provide strong protection against ultraviolet radiation.

The bacterium, which has the Latin name Mircococcus luteus, possesses the ability to block UV rays which cause skin cancer and malignant melanomas, an ability which could be used to create more protective sunscreen.

Key to the microorganism’s abilities is the chemical sarcinaxanthin, which has the almost unique ability to absorb long-wave UV radiation in the range 350-475 nanometers.

The project was carried out by the Norwegian company Promar AS, with assistance from the researchers at bioprospecting organization SINTEF, and was partly funded by the Research Council of Norway.

Making bacteria commercial

The team has developed the first examples of an engineered bacterium designed to produce the substance, which it hopes will be able to create sarcinaxanthin in sufficient quantities to be commercially viable.

Trygve Brautaset, Project and Research Manager at SINTEF, said:“After two years intensive work Sintef had the first examples of this bacterium ready. We have now synthesized a sarcinaxanthin-producing bacterium which can be cultivated.”

“We will now be carrying out tests to see if we can produce it in so-called fermenters (cultivation tanks) in the laboratory. This represents an excellent method for the effective production of sarcinaxanthin in volumes large enough to make industrial applications possible.”

Tricky genetic engineering

Promar has taken out patents for any future sun-blocking substance produced using the bacteria. They are currently working on methods to lower the price of the product and develop a growth medium which will be more sustainable and commercially viable. 

The process of creating the bacterium was slow, requiring what was described as “tricky genetic engineering.”

First, the UV-blocking pigments in the organism had to be identified, then the genes to create the substance isolated, and finally the genetic material had to be transferred to suitable host bacteria.

The cost of a suntan

Promar's product addresses a serious issue for sunbathers: the lack of any commercially available protection from long-wave UV radiation.

This kind of UV ray is the most damaging to the skin because it can penetrate several layers of cells. It is thus far more likely to cause skin cancer and melanomas. 

Suncreams containing sarcinaxanthin should be able to block these rays and thus make cancer from exposure to the sun far less probable. The products will also function as anti-wrinkle agents. 

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