A super sunblock may soon be up for a trial run in outer space. While space exploration continues to be an ever expanding mission for earthlings prone to sunburn, astronauts are not spared from harmful UV ray exposure from the sun during their missions. This sunscreen is not your typical super strength SPF found at the drugstore. Scientists have bio-engineered the human natural pigment melanin and mixed it with selenium to form the key ingredient selenomelanin to be used for this intergalactic sunblock.
NASA explains that humans are prone to dangerous radiation exposure without the earth's protective magnetic field. Damaging UV rays, Gamma rays and galactic cosmic rays that come from outside our solar system can cause cancer when astronauts are subjected to an accumulation of these space rays and can lead to fatal radiation poisoning. The usual countermeasures applied by these space missions utilise lead or water shielding. However, these techniques weigh heavily both as cargo and logistics costs.
Because melanin is a naturally occurring pigment found on humans that provides protection for our skin, eyes and hair from harmful UV light, this synthesised melanin-based super sunblock could just be the perfect space-age solution to outer space radiation exposure.
According to a research team from Northwestern University, Illinois lead by Nathan Giannechi, incorporating selenium into the formula levels up the material as it is known for its cancer prevention properties in organisms. Lab experiments have shown how selenomelanin reacts with skin cells when absorbed. It forms "microparasols" or tiny shields that protect human skin from lethal doses of X-rays.
The study revealed how selenomelanin can also be incorporated into clothing such as the fabric lining of spacesuits and that if live cells were introduced to certain nutrients, it is capable of reproducing selenomelanin on its own, which allows astronauts to create the material while travelling on their mission.
Although the material still needs testing on humans in space to confirm its protective functions, Giannechi is hopeful that more groups will be interested to do further studies on his intercellular sunscreen. The results of his studies on selenomelanin can be found in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and are available as an open source.