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Biology, chemistry, Learning, Sustainability, Uncategorized

#WomeninScience and Cyanobacteria have sunscreen

In light of today being the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I went searching for research done by a women to profile today. I decided to start close to home and look through the biology department at the University of Alberta (U of A) where I did my undergrad and did not have a single female professor (in biology) at the time. What’s worse, is that it didn’t even occur to me that this was weird.

I’m happy to say that, while we are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of diverse representation among faculty we have improved thanks in part at the U of A to one particular woman. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour who dedicated much of her career to increasing representation of women in science and was a founder of WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology) which helps introduce K-12 students to non-traditional careers for their gender through different programs and conferences (I coordinated their conferences for a year and it was an amazing experience). (That was a bit of an aside but I needed to include it based on Armour’s and WISEST’s great importance within my own community.)

So, I scrolled through the list of faculty in the biology department, chose someone at random and then found a paper that caught my attention. And thus, I learned about cyanobacteria sunscreen.

I live in a place where the forest is a lot closer than the ocean, so I know that there are trees that make sunscreen to help protect them from the same UV-A and UV-B radiation that we need to protect ourselves from. It makes sense, that there are many other creatures who also need to protect themselves from damage from the sun as well. Well, Rebecca J. Case (from the U of A) along with Emily P. Balskus, and Christopher T. Walsh examined sunscreen produced by cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacterial will live in these microbial mats that are very dense communities of microbes in areas that are exposed to light. They often occur in areas like intertidal zones, hot springs, and extremely salty (hypersaline) environments. Not surprisingly, given their location, there are many photosynthetic organisms that live in these mats. The sunscreen compound scytonemin is often found near the upper layers of these mats which indicates that it may help protect all the inhabitants from damage.

Balskus, Case, and Walsh sampled different areas of these mats from a particular salt marsh area. What they found was that there were two different types of mats, laminated and unlaminated. Within the laminated mats there were distinctly different areas and scytonemin was only found in the dark green, leathery patches, as opposed to the lighter green and less cohesive areas. The areas without scytonemin had a very different community present compared to the areas with scytonemin. There was a single cyanobacterial species that dominated the areas with scytonemin, while the other areas were dominated by eukaryotic (membrane bound nucleus) algae. In the non-laminated mat, the cyanobacterial community was still early in development as was more diverse without the dominant species from the other area or the eukaryotic algae.

There is much more to their study, and I’ve included the complete reference and link below. But, whenever I read these articles I try to think about what this might mean. The findings may indicate that the suncreen provides the cyanobacteria species a competitive advantage, but also that the eukaryotic algae may have another source of protection from the sun’s rays. It makes me wonder, whether natural sunscreens derived from living organisms might be in our future. And it makes me wonder whether the dominance of a single species makes these mats vulnerable to risks like herbicide or pesticide contamination. These are areas of significant photosynthesis, which in today’s climate change ridden world that means significant carbon capture. Will these communities survive or thrive?

This isn’t an article I was likely to find if I hadn’t gone searching for a woman in science, so I’m glad that I learned something knew and discovered a new researcher to follow. What woman in science will you discover today and what cool thing are they doing?

Balskus, E. P., Case, R. J., & Walsh, C. T. (2011). The biosynthesis of cyanobacterial sunscreen scytonemin in intertidal microbial mat communities. FEMS microbiology ecology77(2), 322–332. doi:10.1111/j.1574-6941.2011.01113.x

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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