Norwegian bacteria make super sunscreen

Bacteria living in Trondheim Fjord can provide humans with better protection against skin cancer and malignant melanomas than traditional sun cream, Norwegian researchers at SINTEF, together with company Promar AS, have discovered.

The microorganism is called Microccus luteus and it has some very special properties. It possesses a rare and sought-after trait – a pigment called sarcinaxanthin- that can absorb long-wavelength UV radiation (in the range 350-475 nanometres).

Trygve Brautasat, Project and Research Manager at SINTEF, said: “After about two years’ intensive work SINTEF had the first examples of this bacterium ready. We have now synthesised a sarcinaxanthin-producing bacterium which can be cultivated.”

By adding sarcinaxanthin to sunscreen, harmful solar radiation is absorbed by the cream before it reaches the skin. Consequently, this agent will be an excellent way of averting the development of malignant melanomas. It was also act as an anti-wrinkle cream.

However, isolating this compound required some tricky engineering for the researchers.

They first had to characterise the pigments produced by the bacterium using a variety of chemical techniques. The genes used to synthesise sarcinaxanthin then had to be isolated. Finally, the research team had to transfer these genes to a host bacterium to create an artificial bacterium able to produce sarcinaxanthin sufficiently effectively to be of commercial interest.

There has been a lot of interest from cosmetics manufacturers in the commercial production of the substance, recently name UVAblue, but the researchers now have the challenge of implementing production of the substance on a large scale.

“The key to success will be to find out how we can acquire sufficiently high-quality growing media for the bacteria producing the sought-after pigment. Such bacteria currently rely on nutritional sources which should be reserved for human consumption, and as such are not sustainable or commercially viable on industrial scales. But we believe we will succeed,” said Audun Goksoyr, Managing Director at Promar AS.

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