18 December 2000

The sunscreen of the future could employ techniques used by colourful corals to protect themselves from ultra-violet (UV) light. Corals convert damaging UV into safer and more useful forms of energy.

These unusual but useful properties of corals have been discovered by Dr Sophie Dove and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of The University of Queensland Centre for Marine Studies.

"In the future, the effectiveness of sunscreens may be based on tricks we have learned from corals," Dr Dove said.

The researchers have revealed the chemical basis of coral colouration and shown how the coral can convert damaging UV light into a form safer and more useful for coral. The results will be published in the December 2000 issue of the research journal Coral Reefs and the applications of the research have been protected in international patents.

"Corals have a way of protecting themselves by converting damaging UV light into a form that is not damaging and that also provides energy for the coral to grow," Dr Dove said.

"In fact, some of the colours we see in corals are a direct result of the UV protection and light conversion mechanisms."

The colour chemicals, called pocilloporins, are related to the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) first discovered in the bioluminescent (light emitting) jellyfish Aequorea victoria. In that species, the GFP emits green light generated by an internal chemical process.

However, corals are not bioluminescent so the pocilloporins must play a different role for coral. A detailed examination of the molecular and genetic structure of the chemicals shows that the coral can absorb UV light and convert it to a useful form for photosynthesis.

"This serves the dual purposes of protecting the coral from UV radiation which is known to be damaging and to convert this light to a form that provides energy to the coral. That is a useful technique for corals whose habitats range from shallow, crystal-clear water to deep or murky water where light is limited," said Dr Dove.

"What is unique about this discovery is that the corals seem to use pocilloporins to encourage a symbiotic, or interdependent, relationship with algae."

"Although there is more work required before consumer products such as a sunscreen are developed from the discovery, the continuing research is clarifying the ways in which the products of nature can be used to our advantage."

For more information or contact details for Dr Sophie Dove and Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg contact Peter McCutcheon at UQ Communications (telephone 07 3365 1088 or 0413 380012, email communications@mailbox.uq.edu.au