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Overview 1

The sun is necessary for life; however, ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes DNA mutations that lead to disease. Regular unprotected exposure to the sun can result in multiple skin disorders, including skin cancer, and even the occasional sunburn can greatly increase your chance of developing melanoma (a form of severe skin cancer). Skin cancer is the 5th most common type of cancer in the UK, and up to 60% of cases are preventable. Sunscreen is our main line of defence when sun exposure is unavoidable.

Sunscreens are therefore important to use. They contain UV filters to protect us from sun damage. But there is a problem: when used while swimming in the sea, conventional sunscreen ingredients cause oxidative stress to coral reefs, resulting in serious coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is a very pressing environmental issue as it causes a domino effect on the rest of the marine ecosystem. Our team aims to produce a novel non-toxic, broad-spectrum UV filter to address this problem

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We discovered a potential solution to the problem of sunscreen toxicity in an unlikely source: The African Hippopotamus. Hippos are large, long-lived and hairless mammals that spend their life sunbathing in the tropical sun. Due to their ability to produce a natural sunscreen, Hippos can avoid getting sunburnt. Their imperviousness to photodamage is due to Hipposudoric Acid, a compound in their sweat which acts like a UV filter – a literature study revealed that this ingredient, hipposudoric acid, has recently been characterized and that it has a number of properties that would make it a very suitable ingredient for a personal care product. This was supported by our market analysis and human practices research.

Hipposudoric acid is a natural compound, but its biosynthetic route in the hippopotamus is unknown. Our goal is to manufacture the novel sunscreen in bacteria, as a reef-safe alternative to commercially available sunscreens. Hipposudoric Acid polymerises naturally into an unreactive molecule minimising the negative environmental effects. As it would be unfeasible to harvest the compound directly from their natural producers, we instead used innovative retrosynthesis methods to design a biosynthetic pathway to our target and utilise techniques like entrepreneurship, stakeholder engagement, and YouTube analysis to ensure that our product meets an urgent real-world need in a safe and responsible way.

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This year, our team was awarded a grant by Revive and Restore, an organisation dedicated to the genetic rescue of species through innovative and thoughtful biotechnology. We would like to thank Revive and Restore for their support of our project HippoSol. The impact of corals is far reaching, and when corals die ecological niches and links are lost making the reefs a poorer environment. Our UV filter will reduce the oxidative stress coral reefs experience, minimising the frequency of bleaching events. Reduced bleaching occurrences will help corals better support marine life including improving fitness and productivity aligning our project values with that of Revive and Restore.

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