Northeastern University researchers synthesize chemical found in longfin squid to use for UV protection

Former graduate student Camille Martin, working with Northeastern chemistry and chemical biology professor Leila Deravi, has synthesized a chemical found in the skin of longfin squid. The goal? To recreate the animal’s natural sun-blocking ability. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

There’s nothing worse than a sunburn. Actually, there is—the potential damage that sunscreen can do to our bodies and the environment. 

So would you try a natural alternative? While lots of products are labeled “organic,” a new method of concocting sunscreen gives a whole other meaning to “natural”: modeling it after the built-in UV protection in squid.

Northeastern’s Camille Martin, a former graduate student, and Leila Deravi, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, are working to recreate a sun-blocking chemical that naturally occurs in cephalopods, a species that includes squid, octopuses, and cuttlefish. 

“In the last 20 years, people started to get a little bit more conscious,” says Martin. But to put consumers at ease about what they’re putting on their skin, what better than a trait bestowed by evolution? “We are really looking forward to getting this out,” she says.

Deravi, who runs Northeastern’s Biomaterials Design Group, had already been studying cephalopods, but specifically their ability to camouflage and send signals with color. As it turns out, she says, the secret behind the longfin squid’s color-changing abilities, a chemical called xanthommatin, can also block ultraviolet light. Being able to extract and isolate this pigment (and then eventually synthesize it, a recent feat of the group) means this material could eventually be incorporated into sun-blocking products.

Currently, only two types of sunscreen are commercially available, and each has pitfalls. Chemical-based sunscreen is meant to be absorbed by the skin, but a May 2019 study by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research found that four common chemicals seep into the bloodstream, too; not only that—they accumulate in amounts high enough to necessitate further safety testing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The other option is mineral sunscreen. As popularized by lifeguards with bright white noses, it’s just that: bright white. It’s chalky, unsubtle, and rubs off on basically everything you touch.

Deravi and Martin are setting the stage for a third option, one that could take countless forms, since xanthommatin essentially corrals the qualities of chemical and mineral sunscreen into one package.

“It’s not just absorbing UV radiation; it’s really scattering light,” says Martin. “That provides another mechanism of protection that is not found in other commercially available UV filters.”

The regulatory pipeline is a long one—according to Deravi, the last time the FDA approved a UV filter was in the 1970s—but tests that the Biomaterials Design Group is completing are yielding promising results. 

“Not only are we saying that it’s really effective as a pigment,” says Martin. “We can also now say that it’s safe in our system when we’re looking at the in vitro models.” The next step for Deravi and Martin is to study how xanthommatin behaves in an in vivo model, an environment that more closely resembles the human body as a whole.

Before landing on this project, and never abandoning a love of cosmetics throughout her studies, Martin met with various professors to learn about their labs and find the right fit. 

As Martin recalls, during a presentation Deravi was giving on her work with color-changing animals, she revealed a nascent goal: figuring out how to apply the materials she studies to cosmetics and skin care.

Martin’s first thought? “This is a great match.”

Yeah—no squidding.

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