Bacteria can produce a space sunscreen. On Mars, he will be what he found

One of the more serious problems that we must solve before humans can fly to Mars and stay there longer is to protect them from the enormous amounts of cosmic rays. Perhaps a specific solar filter will help us in this.

Just as sunbathers use a sunscreen to protect themselves from too much solar radiation, maybe one day the researchers of the Moon or Mars will use slightly different creams containing a new substance, specially developed by engineers.

In the case of sunbathing in space, we are talking about selenomelanin formed in the process of enriching the natural pigment – melanin with selenium.

In addition to the protective magnetic field of the Earth, astronauts will, according to NASA, be exposed to many types of dangerous and harmful radiation, such as X-rays and gamma rays from the sun, but also superfast galactic cosmic rays from outside the solar system.

Artistic vision showing the surface of the planet Proxima b

DNA damage caused by such cosmic rays can lead to cancer and, in the case of high doses, radiation sickness and death. Traditional radiation protection methods such as lead or shields containing a thicker layer of water, while effective, significantly increase the weight and therefore the cost of building and carrying out spacecraft.

Melanin to help

Melanin is a wide range of pigments naturally occurring in animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. It is the many types of melanin that are responsible for the wide range of skin, hair and eye colors in humans.

Melanin is a very enigmatic substance. We still haven’t fully met her, says Nathan Gianneschi, a biochemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

In animals, melanins fall into two main groups: eumelanins and phaeomelanins. Eumelanin is responsible for the black color and dark color of the skin and hair, while pheomelanin contains sulfur and is rather red or yellow – responsible for the red color of the hair and the red color of the lips.

In addition, pheomelanin absorbs X-rays much more effectively than eumelanin. Based on this information, Gianneschi and his team decided to take some phaeomelanin from rooster feathers and see if it could be improved in terms of radiation protection.

The researchers replaced the sulfur in pheomelanin with selenium, an element located exactly under the sulfur in the periodic table of elements, which is known to protect against cancer. This is how selenomelanin was created – a compound that has not been observed in nature so far.

During experiments in the laboratory, skin cells treated with seloenomelanin were able to protect themselves from X-rays in doses that would be fatal to humans. Selenomelanin was absorbed by the cells and formed a kind of “micro-umbrellas” that protect the nucleus of the cell, which contains the DNA. After selenomelanin was absorbed, the cells turned brown, resembling a tan.

Artistic vision depicting the base on Mars

The stocks can be produced in space

As part of additional tests, it was proved that specially crafted bacteria produce selenomelanin after administration of selenium, which means that it can theoretically be produced in space. The research and test results are published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Now it’s time for tests on humans and tests in space. As part of them, scientists will check whether selenomelanine actually offers the same level of protection against cosmic radiation. We will have to wait for the results, but the potential to solve one of the important problems standing in the way of the conquest of space is large.

Bacteria can produce a space sunscreen. On Mars, he will be what he found

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