Many tropical fish spend the their lives in shallow, sunlit waters, and yet they don’t get sunburned. A recent study conducted by scientists from Oregon State University has shed light on this phenomenon, proving that some fish species are capable of producing their own sunscreen. The findings of the study were published in the journal eLife earlier this month, and may have significant ramifications for the future of human skincare. Dr. Taifo Mahmud, a professor at the OSU College of Pharmacy and lead author of the study, hopes that the compound created by the fish might someday become available to humans. The supplement, which would be taken as a pill, would allow humans to similarly produce their own sunscreen.
Specifically, Mahmud’s research showed that zebrafish are able to produce a chemical called gadusol, which protects against UV radiation. Gadusol is not a new discovery, and has previously been identified in cod roe, mantis shrimp, sea urchin eggs and sponges. However, until now, it was thought that gadusol could only be created by algae or bacteria; and that those fish species that contained the chemical must have acquired it through their diet. Mahmud and his team were conducting research on other compounds used to treat diabetes and fungal infections when they realized that the zebrafish they were studying possessed EEVS, the biosynthetic enzyme needed to create gadusol. Intrigued, they expressed the relevant genes in yeast and found that when EEVS is combined with another protein, it produces gadusol, proving that rather than ingesting the compound, the fish were creating it themselves.
The ability to produce large quantities of gadusol in yeast means that commercialization of the product is a practical possibility for the future. According to Mahmud, “The fact that the compound is produced by fish…makes it a safe prospect to ingest in pill form.” Further studies must be conducted to ascertain how the human body would absorb, distribute and metabolize gadusol before it can safely be reproduced for human consumption. It’s possible though, that this discovery could revolutionize the way we protect ourselves from UV radiation. Instead of having to constantly apply and reapply sunscreen, we may one day be able to take a pill that allows us to simply create our own. It seems that in this respect, humans and other mammals are somewhat behind the curve. “We don’t have the ability to make this compound, but we’ve found that many other animal species do,” says Mahmud. In addition to many species of fish, the American alligator, the green sea turtle and chickens all produce gadusol.
Sun protection may not be the only use for commercially produced gadusol; it may also be effective in other areas of medical and cosmetic research, potentially playing a role in stress responses, embryonic development and as an antioxidant.