The new “sunscreen” for coral reefs is here

Tao Lei, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at Tsinghua University, and his collaborators developed a coral reef-friendly “sunscreen” by polymerizing to form macromolecules. These macromolecules can block ultraviolet rays, but cannot penetrate people’s skin, corals and algae. The study was published March 2 in Cell Reporter Physics. Studies have shown that the new sunscreen is more effective than existing sunscreens in preventing sunburn in mice.

“This is an initial exploration of new strategies for designing bio-friendly and coral-friendly UV-resistant polymers.” Tao Lei, the corresponding author of the paper, said, “We hope that this will lead to the next generation of sunscreen.” ”

In 2010, after visiting the Great Barrier Reef, Tao Lei was inspired to explore eco-friendly sunscreen. “I was fascinated by the beauty of corals, and ever since I knew that sunscreen was one of the causes of coral bleaching, I had been thinking about ways to develop a coral-friendly sunscreen.” He said.

Tao Lei explained to China Science News that small molecules of sunscreens in traditional sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and cinnamate, can cause coral bleaching. Some countries have banned the use of sunscreens containing such substances at seashores.

To study the new sunscreen, he and his team first used a chemical reaction to randomly generate different ring molecules similar in structure to avobenzone, an existing UV-blocking chemical. They then linked these cyclic molecules together in different combinations to create a set of candidate polymers to choose from. The researchers identified the best candidate materials by comparing the polymer’s SPF value and ability to absorb ultraviolet light.

When the researchers tested skin burns caused by this polymer in mice, they found that it was significantly superior to oxybenzone, avobenzone, and two commercial sunscreens. The mice did not absorb the new polymer through the skin and did not experience any inflammation or other skin damage.

The polymer also appears to be harmless to corals and algae, both of which are harmed by currently available chemical sunscreens. When the team cultivated chlorella in an environment containing small amounts of the polymer, chlorella was not affected, nor were the two common corals. But when exposed to oxybenzone, these corals bleach and die within 6 and 20 days, respectively.

“Scientists in the fields of environment and ecology have been paying attention to the problem of coral bleaching. The biggest highlight of our research is the use of a very old organic reaction to prepare a compound with UV-resistant and coral-friendly capabilities, which embodies the charm of synthetic chemistry. Tao Lei told China Science News.

But the researchers say the polymer is non-biodegradable due to its chemical backbone structure, which is just the first step in developing the next generation of environmentally safe sunscreens.

“We have some ideas for other non-random polymerization methods that can be combined with the chemical groups developed in this study to create an environmentally friendly and readily biodegradable sunscreen compound.” “In the meantime, we will try to work with companies to test the current polymer to see if it can be used in sunscreen,” Tao said. ”

A healthy coral reef Photo by Lorenzo Alvarez-Filip

A water-soluble polymer studied by the authors with excellent UV absorption ability that effectively protects mice from skin burns caused by UV radiation is significantly better than existing UV filters such as oxybenzone and avobenzone and commercial sunscreens. (Source: China Science News Feng Lifei)

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