'Space sunblock' made from SKIN pigment could shield against radiation

‘Space sunblock’ made from SKIN pigment could shield astronauts from lethal doses of radiation while traveling to Mars and beyond

  • Scientists designed a type of sunscreen to protect astronauts from radiation
  • Called selenomelanin, it combines melanin enriched with selenium
  • Tests showed cells treated with the biomaterial survived high doses of radiation
  • The team also found that the protectant can reproduce in cells on its own 

Scientists developed a protectant for astronauts against dangerous radiation by pulling inspiration from beach-goers – a ‘space sunblock.’

By synthesizing a new form of melanin enriched with selenium, the team developed a biomaterial called selenomelanin that protects human tissues once applied.

During lab experiments, cells treated with the ‘sunscreen’ exhibited a normal cycle after being shot with a lethal dose of radiation.

Other tests showed that when selenomelanin can reproduce in the body on its own when cells are fed appropriate nutrients, allowing astronauts to reproduce the shield while traveling through space.

By synthesizing a new form of melanin enriched with selenium, the team developed a biomaterial called selenomelanin that protects human tissues once applied. During lab experiments, cells treated with the ‘sunscreen’ exhibited a normal cycle after being shot with a lethal dose of radiation

The first men and women will soon embark on a historical journey to Mars, but the mission has raised concerns about how galactic cosmic rays would affect them, as high doses of radiation can lead to dementia, memory loss or even death.

Scientists are working around the clock to find a solution and a team from Northwestern University believes to have uncovered a solution.

Nathan Gianneschi, who led the research, said: ‘Given the increased interest in space travel and the general need for lightweight, multifunctional and radioprotective biomaterials, we’ve become excited about the potential of melanin.’

‘It occurred to our postdoctoral fellow Wei Cao that melanin containing selenium would offer better protection than other forms of melanin.’

During lab experiments, cells treated with the ‘sunscreen’ exhibited a normal cycle after being shot with a lethal dose of radiation

‘That brought up the intriguing possibility that this as-yet undiscovered melanin may very well exist in nature, being used in this way. So we skipped the discovery part and decided to make it ourselves.’

Melanin is found in most organisms on Earth, along with bacteria, fungi and most animal kingdoms.

Although it is mostly known for pigmentation, it provides humans with their hair, skin and eye color, it also protects cells from radiation.

Gianneschi and his team looked to this pigmentation as a shield due to the idea that it is easier to carry on missions compared to heavy, bulky lead or metal protectants.

Melanin samples are also currently in orbit at the International Space Station, being studied by another research team for the material’s response to radiation exposure.

Other tests showed that when selenomelanin can reproduce in the body on its own when cells are fed appropriate nutrients, allowing astronauts to reproduce the shield while traveling through space

Recent studies have focused on pheomelanin, which contains sulfur, as the best candidate for that purpose, but the recent study took a different route.

The team used melanin, which protects against X-rays and combined it with selenium that is a micronutrient used in cancer prevention – and the end result was ‘selenomelanin.’

To test the new biomaterial, Ginneschi treated cells with it and dosed them with enough radiation to kill a human.

‘Our results demonstrated that selenomelanin offers superior protection from radiation,’ Gianneschi said. ‘We also found that it was easier to synthesize selenomelanin than pheomelanin, and what we created was closer than synthetic pheomelanin to the melanin found in nature.’

The team also discovered that live cells fed certain nutrients can reproduce the biomaterial on their own, allowing astronauts to create the shield while traveling through space.  

‘With an abundant source of selenium in the environment, some organisms may have been able to adapt to extreme circumstances such as radiation through the beneficial effects of selenomelanin,’ Gianneschi said. 

HOW DOES SPACE RADIATION IMPACT ASTRONAUTS’ HEALTH?

Astronauts journeying to Mars would likely be bombarded with 700 times the levels of radiation experienced on Earth.

Even on the International Space Station, astronauts are exposed to 200 times more radiation as a result of their work than would be experienced by an airline pilot or a radiology nurse.

As a result, NASA is constantly monitoring local space weather information.

If a burst of space radiation is detected, mission control in Houston, Texas, can instruct astronauts to abort space walks, move to more shielded areas of the orbiting laboratory and even adjust the station’s altitude to minimise any health impacts.

Solar flare activity can cause acute radiation exposure effects — such as changes to the blood, diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting — which can be recovered from, and other impacts that are non-reversible and/or fatal.

Long-term cosmic ray bombardment is a greater concern.

This can increases the risks of cancer, generate cataracts and cause sterility.

It can also cause damage to the brain, central nervous system and heart, paving the way for various degenerative diseases.

DNA changes from space radiation can even be passed on to subsequent children. 

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