Sunscreen has protected millions from cancer in the last few decades since its introduction. With innovations, including water-resistant and spray types, the adoption of sunscreen has reached new heights. But recent reports that the chemicals in sunscreen can themselves turn into cancer-causing carcinogens has many worried about the future of sunscreen and its safety. This is why a safe, nontoxic, and easily produced sunscreen chemical could save even more people from developing skin cancer.

A research group out of Norway has recently discovered bacteria that produce a pigment that absorbs ultraviolet (UV) light at 350-475 nanometers, the same wavelength that causes mutations in DNA and triggers cancers such as melanomas. This long wavelength of UV light is not easily filtered or blocked by regular UVA- and UVB-blocking sunscreen, so there is a definite need for a product to help people to avoid DNA damage and the premature skin aging and cancers associated with such DNA mutations.

The bacterial species that the researchers found is called Micrococcus luteus and was found living in Trondheim Fjord. Promar AS, a biotechnology company based in Norway, has already patented the pigments to manufacture them for future use in sunscreens.

The genes that produce the UV-blocking pigment in Micrococcus luteus were identified and then copied into bacteria that are commonly used to make biological products, such as insulin. The chemical, a sarcinaxanthin carotenoid, has been difficult to produce using chemistry, so biology offers a shortcut to producing the pigment.

"After about two years' intensive work, SINTEF had the first examples of this bacterium ready," said Trygve Brautaset, project and research manager at SINTEF, the largest independent Scandinavian research organization. "We have now synthesized a sarcinaxanthin-producing bacterium which can be cultivated. We will now be carrying out tests to see if we can produce it in so-called fermenters (cultivation tanks) in the laboratory. This represents an excellent method for the effective production of sarcinaxanthin in volumes large enough to make industrial applications possible."

Many cosmetic companies are interested in the pigment, recently named "UVAblue," because of its known ability to block long wavelengths of UV light and prevent skin aging and cancer. The pigment could make it into sunscreens within the next decade, with the promise of helping people better avoid melanoma and other skin cancers.