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In the Future, We Might Take Sunscreen in Pill Form

A discovery in some fish suggests that sunblocking chemicals could be ingested rather than slathered on

(Leslie Richard Jacobs/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The harmful rays of the sun can cause skin cancer, sunburns and can contribute to premature aging. For humans, the most effective way of preventing these side effects is by slathering on sunblock. But other animals have a better idea — they make their own sunblock naturally.

Take the zebrafish for example. Scientists have discovered that zebrafish and other animals produce a compound called gadusol that protects them from the rays of the sun. Though it’s long been known that fish use gadusol to protect themselves from the massive amounts of UV radiation found in the upper ocean, scientists used to think they could only obtain gadusol from food or relationships with bacteria. But when researchers looked more closely at zebrafish genes, they learned that fish combine an enzyme called EEVS and another protein to make gadusol in their own bodies. 

As part of the experiment, the research team was able to create gadusol themselves by expressing the right genes in yeast. Which means they may have landed on a way to create ingestible sunscreen — if it works safely in humans, that is. The researchers are optimistic about the prospect: Taifo Mahmud, the study’s lead author, said in a release that “the fact that the compound is produced by fish, as well as by other animals including birds, makes it safe to ingest in pill form.”

Perhaps sunscreen in a pill is just around the corner. While you wait, though, organizations like the Skin Cancer Foundation say sunscreen in a bottle isn’t optional. They recommend that anyone planning to go outside invest in broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 15 or above.

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