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Gingers and daywalkers rejoice!
September 3, 2010 4:33 AM   Subscribe

The human body is made up of more bacteria cells than human cells. Now, researchers at Harvard have isolated the genes responsible for producing amino acids that can block ultraviolet light and managed get E. coli bacteria to produce them too. Can I interest you in some sunblocking bacteria living on your skin?
posted by T.D. Strange (40 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd rather have photosynthetic bacteria living on my skin. Blocks the sun AND provides me with part of my daily calories requirements.
posted by DU at 4:38 AM on September 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


wait. isn't UV irradiation sometimes used to sterilize stuff? so now there's a strain of bacteria where that method doesn't work.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 4:43 AM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'd like some, as long as I can program their movements. Using ordinary sunblock, it's quite difficult to generate sunblock tattoos with delicate shading. This could revolutionize the industry.
posted by Ella Fynoe at 4:49 AM on September 3, 2010


wait. isn't UV irradiation sometimes used to sterilize stuff? so now there's a strain of bacteria where that method doesn't work.

I can just picture some kind of UV resistant fungal infection completely overwhelming people from the skin in.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:57 AM on September 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I always see these types of discoveries as another potential for an inevitable zombie uprising...
posted by samsara at 5:00 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Harvard article is behind a paywall for me, and probably most people. I can't read the article, but I would be surprised if the researchers think that the bacteria will live on your skin and can be used as sunblock.

Genetically modified bacteria are actually really bad at surviving in the wild - there have been some attempts to use them in bioremediation projects (cleaning up oil spills and such) but they are quickly outcompeted by the natural flora. Neither cyanobacteria (adapted to living in harsh ocean and soil conditions) nor E. coli (adapted to live in your gut, and to quickly lose bulky inserts like the ones coding for non-essental sunblock genes) will survive and outcompete the bacteria in your normal skin flora without losing the genes.

I can't find anything about bacterially derived "sunscreen" proteins being tested as sunblock additives for human use, but now they have figured out the biosynthesis maybe they can ramp up production for further testing.
posted by fermezporte at 5:02 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


This plan, elegant in its simplicity, cannot possibly go wrong!
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:04 AM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here in Britain, we have recently made a major breakthrough by producing a new, extremely large germ; a germ so large that it can kill a man by acts of physical violence. We scientists have nicknamed this germ "the extremely large germ", but more correctly, we refer to it as "the big strangler" after Dr. Big Strangler, the biologist. "The big strangler" will also be able to kill people by kneeing them in the head.

We hope soon to develop a particularly virulent bacteria which can drive tanks and a sophisticated form of cholera which goes to the opera twice a week and can choose a decent claret.

It's....
posted by Mblue at 5:11 AM on September 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


The human body is made up of more bacteria cells than human cells.

And there are more TED talks than bacteria cells.
posted by pracowity at 5:12 AM on September 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


Does this link work?
posted by fatfrank at 5:15 AM on September 3, 2010


(Not pay-walled version of article, I think)
posted by fatfrank at 5:16 AM on September 3, 2010


I'd rather have photosynthetic bacteria living on my skin. Blocks the sun AND provides me with part of my daily calories requirements.

I've considered this in the past, unfortunately animals use way too much energy.
The average male has 2 square metres of skin, let's assume that 1 m2 is facing the sun. Let's assume that we're able to develop photosynthesis that is even more efficient than that of sugar cane (peaks at 8% compared to 1% typical for food crops), let's be generous and say we can do 10%.
At noon, at the equator, the insolation is about 1000 Watts / m2.
At this time, a photosynthetic human would be producing 1m2 x 10% x 1000 = 100 watts.
If we can stay in the tropical sun for 10 hours, we're at 1000 Watt hours of energy per day. This about 850 Kcal.

Considering how absurdly generous our assumptions have been, I think that we can safely say that this is not going to be a significant contributor to our caloric requirements.
posted by atrazine at 5:16 AM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


The human body is made up of more bacteria cells than human cells.

Yeah... keep in mind that human cells are hundreds or thousands of times the size of bacteria. I've seen this stat thrown around and it really gives a bogus assumption that humans are somehow mostly made out of bacteria. In actuality, you have a lot of bacteria in your intestines, but by mass you are almost entirely made from human cells. And also "made up of"? They don't, as far as I know, form an kind of structural components. They just sit in your intestines.
posted by delmoi at 5:20 AM on September 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


This about 850 Kcal

this is not going to be a significant contributor to our caloric requirements.

You just calculated it at 30-50%! But even if you scale back the generous assumptions, you still have a non-trivial amount. (If you don't think, say, 5% is non-trivial, I'd be happy to take that much of your net worth off your hands.)
posted by DU at 5:20 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd like some, as long as I can program their movements. Using ordinary sunblock, it's quite difficult to generate sunblock tattoos with delicate shading. This could revolutionize the industry.

Couldn't you just use a stencil?
posted by delmoi at 5:21 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


DU: "I'd rather have photosynthetic bacteria living on my skin. Blocks the sun AND provides me with part of my daily calories requirements."

Yeah, but it's not easy being green.
posted by bwg at 5:23 AM on September 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


wait. isn't UV irradiation sometimes used to sterilize stuff?

Bacteria already make these materials, but now, if we really wanted, we could trick the little guys into pumping up production. I'm not sure how much protection this would really offer - I mean if your skin was five times as thick, it still wouldn't stop bullets.

Also, UV sterilization isn't all that great since any bacteria hiding in the shade of some little microscopic crevice are already immune.

OMG! Don't you see - we're breeding lucky bacteria!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:36 AM on September 3, 2010


Bacteria are so micro. I've gone macro this season and begun painting bee pheromones directly on to my body. I find that I don't even need a bathing suit anymore. Not only do the little devils cover everything up nicely, but people seem unwilling to venture close enough to me to see any details.

But I would be willing to rethink the scheme if we could get bacteria to secrete the appropriate bee pheromones.
posted by pracowity at 5:45 AM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


You just calculated it at 30-50%! But even if you scale back the generous assumptions, you still have a non-trivial amount. (If you don't think, say, 5% is non-trivial, I'd be happy to take that much of your net worth off your hands.)

So if I sit naked by the window while I work I might be able to skip lunch? Sign me up!
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:02 AM on September 3, 2010


Also, UV sterilization isn't all that great since any bacteria hiding in the shade of some little microscopic crevice are already immune.

Considering UV-A penetrates all the way to the dermis, the bacteria would have to be all the way down in the subcutaneous layer to be fully in the shade.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:04 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Can I interest you in some sunblocking bacteria living on your skin?"

As a person who loves the outdoors and sunshine and has vitiligo: Oh hell yes!
I would love to be able to hike in the mountains in the summer with my shirt off again - feeling my surroundings.
(Sunscreen does help but is inadequate and feels to me like being dipped in glue.)

Yay SCIENCE.
posted by vapidave at 6:10 AM on September 3, 2010


Perhaps instead of genetically engineered sunblock bacteria colonizing our skin, we could genetically engineer a sunblock gland into future generations of h. sapiens. Rubbing the secretion around could become a social grooming activity.
posted by adamrice at 6:12 AM on September 3, 2010


Oh goody, can I please have some rickets to go with my UV-blocking (and therefor Vitamin-D-inhibiting) bacteria? THANKS.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:17 AM on September 3, 2010


Can I interest you in some sunblocking bacteria living on your skin?

Not if they are the kind that come from feces. Call me when they modify some normal skin flora.

Also, bioluminescent bacteria would be cool. Especially bioluminescent E. Coli; then your shit might still stink, but it would glow in the dark! (Especially useful for pets so you could avoid land mines in your yard at night.)
posted by TedW at 6:24 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I'd rather have photosynthetic bacteria living on my skin. Blocks the sun AND provides me with part of my daily calories requirements."

As a person already of, uh, size, I sure hope such a bacteria never makes it into the wild.
posted by Mitheral at 6:25 AM on September 3, 2010


I'm not waiting for these damn scientists to work out the details.

*climbs into yogurt bath*
posted by orme at 6:31 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I assume this research is being funded by the Vampire Rights League?
posted by The Whelk at 6:51 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would like this very much. Also, if they could push the protection spectrum down to about 405 nanometers, which is a little out of even UVA, I would be ever so grateful.
posted by adipocere at 6:55 AM on September 3, 2010


The average male has 2 square metres of skin, let's assume that 1 m2 is facing the sun.

Don't you oppress me with your bourgeois "pants".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 7:08 AM on September 3, 2010


The average male has 2 square metres of skin, let's assume that 1 m2 is facing the sun.

Don't you oppress me with your bourgeois "pants".


I think you are being oppressed with is the fact that you aren't standing in front of a mirror.
posted by DU at 7:10 AM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


fatfrank, that appears to be an entirely different article, possibly not even about the same small molecules.

And forget potential applications of this as sunscreen for humans. Years and years away. But this could make an interesting selection gene in the laborartory. Stick these genes in your plasmid, give your transformants a couple hours of recovery time, plate, stick in UV for, say, 30 minutes, and then put the plate back in the dark. Hopefully only the UV-resistent cells well grow. Could be useful for systems where delivery of antibiotics isn't practical or... Or hell, you don't even need antibiotics. This would be way cheaper! (KidCharlemagne is right, it's not as fool proof as I'd like, but that's what colony PCR is for, right?)
posted by maryr at 8:11 AM on September 3, 2010


Genetically modified human flora!
Get a vial of Stink-B-Gone™ mouth bacteria for only £99.99 and be fresh breathed every day! (Also available in new Strawberry flavour.) Say farewell to tooth troubles with Decay-Away™! Guaranteed to outcompete your puny natural bacteria.*

* Not actually guaranteed.
Flora More-a Ltd. will not be held liable for any death, undeath or redeath caused by or in reaction to its products. Any use of your tongue to engage with another tongue, whether by kissing, frenching or other tangling of said tongues will be treated as an attempt to illegally replicate Flora More-a property and punished to the full extent of the law.
posted by lucidium at 12:01 PM on September 3, 2010


Forget potential applications of this as sunscreen for humans because the health benefits of sunscreen are debatable, and there are definitely health benefits to sun exposure - without UVB you won't be getting any vitamin D (or producing melanin), so these bacteria would be an excellent way to die of complications of a vitamin deficiency. An effective sunscreen would block UVA while allowing significant UVB penetration - something no sunscreens currently do.
posted by mek at 12:06 PM on September 3, 2010


DU: "I'd rather have photosynthetic bacteria living on my skin. Blocks the sun AND provides me with part of my daily calories requirements."

People is soylent green?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 12:35 PM on September 3, 2010


In the 1930s, a milk fortification program was implemented in the United States to combat rickets, then a major public health problem. This program virtually eliminated the disorder at that time. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitamind.asp

It is fortification of foods that saves modern people from Vitamin D deficiency. Read your labels.
posted by vapidave at 2:02 PM on September 3, 2010


Not everyone eats industrially-produced vitamin-fortified products, and Vitamin D levels correlate strongly to sun exposure, regardless of fortification. Vitamin D deficiency in 1.1 million Canadians.
posted by mek at 2:25 PM on September 3, 2010


(I do not think that GM bacteria for the purposes of blocking UV rays is anything less than messin' where we ought not to be messin'.) I address the issue of vitamin D without consideration of latitude.

Modern living is the problem and the solution unless you would like to give up modern conveniences. The things in your house are produced by people that work inside. Your doctor, mechanic, cable guy, insurance agent, lawyer, dentist, and accountant work inside. Cooks, stockers, bartenders, barristas, brewers, bankers, bakers, candlestick makers and the people that bring you the internet and everything that is on your computer work inside. Art is largely produced inside as is science.

You can buy a 200 day supply of vitamin D online for $8.27 Canadian.

I'm not sure what of the above listed - and the many not listed - you would be willing to give up in order for society to return to where vitamin D is supplied exclusively by local fauna or produced by exposure to sunlight. It is a nice idea and I wish we all could have the benefits of both modern and rustic living but we all can't.
posted by vapidave at 5:03 PM on September 3, 2010


You can just fake and bake, in fact several Northern European countries (and heck, even the USA for a while there) subsidize tanning beds because they recognize the mental health benefits. And let's not forget Sarah Palin famously had a tanning bed installed in the governor's mansion. Anyway, the whole topic of sunlight as health benefit is an ongoing debate (but, to me, painfully obvious as necessary to our existence) - and I think we both agree that sunblocking bacteria are a terrible idea.
posted by mek at 6:22 PM on September 3, 2010


Reading about vitamin D and the natural sources I found in the wiki "Fish liver oils, such as cod liver oil, 1 Tbs. (15 ml) provides 1360 IU (90.6 IU/ml)" and coming to date, "The current recommended intakes for vitamin D are as low as 200 IU daily for those aged 19-50, and go only as high as 600 IU daily for those over the age of 70." (here)

So one Tbs. of cod liver oil provides 226% of the highest estimate of your need for vitamin D. A Tbs. or so of cod liver oil has been a folk remedy for a long time of course.
posted by vapidave at 9:46 PM on September 3, 2010


I have been told by a number of doctors that the rda of vitamin D is too low and the newer thinking is that 1000 iu is correct for adults.
posted by humanfont at 6:45 PM on September 4, 2010


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