Video transcript: Tropical coral could be used to create novel sunscreens for humans or UV-tolerant plants, say scientists

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September 2011

Dr Paul Long - Institute of Pharmaceutical Science, King's College London
Corals produce natural sun-screening compounds and what we have shown now from our research actually is that its relationship between the small plants, these algae, and the corals working together to make the compounds to protect both them.

Video show various coral scenes underwater in the ocean

The clear water sort of tropics are actually very poor in nutrients and of course corals can't move around for them to survive. They have to have a source of food. So, to do that they actually have plants of small algae growing inside their tissue. But these algae, these plants, use sunlight as a source of energy which means that the coral has to live in very shallow water so potentially its going to be vulnerable to sunburn just humans would be.

Video shows a scuba-diver exploring the coral

Through funding from BBSRC it allowed us to go to the Great Barrier Reef for four months. We went out onto the reef onto a research vessel and we carried out experiments actually in the field.

Video shows stills of the divers examining the coral

So this involved diving down to depth where there is very little sunlight, collecting corals from there, bringing them to the surface to see if we could actually induce them to start making the sun-screening compounds and we were successful in doing that.

Video shows samples brought up to the ship to study in a tank of sea water

We have brought the coral material back to the laboratory and we are finalising now the biosynthetic steps with a view to be able to using genetic engineering to recreate the compounds in the laboratory. Then once we have been able to do that then that gives us what we call a sustainable supply of the compounds so we don't have to go back to the Barrier Reef and keep on sampling corals.

Video shows divers collecting samples underwater

What we want to do is recreate the sunscreens in the test tube in the laboratory and then start testing them, first of all on simple human skin models but then ultimately we would like to transfer the testing into humans.

The real reason we think that we can use the sun-screening compounds from corals in the human application comes from more observation that actually these compounds pass up the food chain. So you get small fish eating the corals like Nemo in Disney and then larger fish would eat the smaller fish and so these compounds pass up the food chains.

Video shows a scientist in a lab placing samples in a test-tube

If we can create some kind of tablature formulation then, hopefully the same things will happen with humans.

The real long-term goal of the project is to take our biosynthetic pathway from the corals and transplant them into plants and if these plants are high value crops then hopefully we can actually make them more resistant to sunlight and this is a real problem when you start thinking about agriculture in third world countries.

Video shows diver carefully examining coral in the ocean

We can actually use the same material to study the phenomenon knows as coral bleaching and this is where the corals actually die because they lose the this symbiotic partner, this algae.

Video shows various corals in their natural state

Global warming is causing a rise in sea temperatures and is responsible for bleaching. Coral reefs are believed to be the greatest source of biological diversity on the planet, much more than tropical rain forests so, because of this, this is going to be a really important source for potentially new medicines in the future.

Funded by BBSRC with the University of Maine and Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).



Coral video and images by Dr Victor Beltran (AIMS).