So Gadusol Laboratories is developing a nontoxic sunscreen ingredient using a substance that fish and other marine life use to avoid sunburn?

Right. Gadusol Labs is developing and scaling up a production process for gadusol, a UV-B absorbing compound that marine organisms make naturally, likely to protect themselves from the sun. Scientists have known about gadusol for several years, but it was previously thought that fish acquired it through diet, by eating gadusol-producers. A 2015 study led by Professor Taifo Mahmud at Oregon State University described for the first time the gadusol biosynthetic pathway in fish and its presence in many other marine species, demonstrating that while diet is one potential source, certain species of fish can make it on their own. While humans and other mammals don't have the ability to make this compound, many other animal species do. Learn more here.

How exactly are the UV-absorbing compounds produced/extracted for human use?

Harvesting gadusol directly from fish is not sustainable or economical. Instead, we produce gadusol using the tools of synthetic biology, essentially, transferring the ability to make gadusol into yeast and then producing gadusol via fermentation by culturing the yeast in a suitable growth environment. Humans have been using yeast for thousands of years to produce food products (i.e., bread, wine, beer), and recently, scientists have been able to push the boundaries of synthetic biology production. Take Bolt Threads, for example - they can create spider silk using a similar process. Advances in synthetic biology allow us to create natural products sustainably.

How long has this been in development?

Research related to the gadusol genetic pathway has been underway since 2012 at Oregon State University. Gadusol Laboratories was founded in 2017 as an OSU spinoff company, and since then, has been focused on optimizing gadusol production and performing essential safety and efficacy testing.

What are the plans for scaling up the current system?

This year (2019), our focus is on scaling up our production system from lab-scale to pilot-scale.

When do you expect to bring it to market? How will it compare to cost to conventional sunscreen?

In order sell gadusol as a new active sunscreen ingredient in the U.S., we need to conduct FDA-required safety and efficacy testing. We've begun initial testing and plan to continue to perform tests while scaling up our current production system. However, the FDA process is quite rigorous, so it is difficult to say when we will be able to sell gadusol as an active ingredient, although we plan on getting to market as soon as we can. 

We plan to sell gadusol directly to sunscreen and cosmetic formulators and manufacturers to incorporate into a wide array of sunscreen products, ranging from cosmetic products to sunscreens for beachgoers. We believe we can make the production process economical enough to make gadusol competitive with other personal care product ingredients.

How does it compare in effectiveness to conventional sunscreen?

We haven't completed a full array of tests, but initial results have been very positive. Keep in mind that marine organisms are exposed to significant UV irradiation (think about how easy it is to get sunburned while swimming in the ocean). Gadusol appears to be one of nature's natural UV-protectants. On-going testing is needed to assure that it is safe and effective for human use as well. 

I’m familiar with snorkeling in the ocean and being told not to wear conventional sunscreen because its ingredients can harm sea life. Was this any consideration of yours when developing this product?

Absolutely - this is the main driver behind our production of gadusol. Chemical-based sunscreens containing the active ingredients oxybenzone and/or octinoxate have begun to be banned, such as in Hawaii, the country of Palau, and now possibly Florida's Key West region. These ingredients are believed to be very damaging to marine life, especially coral reefs. They may also be harmful to humans.

What effect does your product have, if any, on sea life?

Given that gadusol is produced and consumed by marine organisms, we think it’s very likely to be benign. As humans, we've been eating gadusol every time we eat ocean-caught fish. Nonetheless, a careful and systematic safety evaluation must be undertaken, particularly because widespread use as a commercial sunscreen could increase exposure. 

And how might using it instead of conventional sunscreen help ‘save’ sea life?

We believe that using gadusol-based sunscreens instead of oxybenzone and/or octinoxate-based sunscreens could eliminate known harmful sunscreen-induced damage to coral reefs and possibly harm to other marine organisms. 

What about the impact of conventional sunscreens on coral reefs?

Each year, about 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in the ocean. The chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate are two of the most popular ingredients in sunscreens. Oxybenzone alone is found in over 3,500 sunscreen products. Mineral-based sunscreens that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to block UV rays are much safer, but many people don’t like formulations with these ingredients because of the white film they leave behind. These sunscreens can also feel thick and greasy on your skin, especially in high SPF formulations, and often don’t come in easy-to-apply spray products that beachgoers prefer.

Oxybenzone is particularly concerning because it can damage coral DNA and acts as an endocrine disruptor. Coral reefs are important parts of the marine ecosystem that support biodiversity. A 2016 study performed by the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory showed that both chemicals slowed coral growth and increased coral bleaching – a condition that happens when conditions like temperature change so much that coral turns white and the symbiotic algae living in the coral departs. 

What sort of funding has the project received so far? What other funding is in the works?

We’ve received a National Science Foundation (NSF) SBIR Phase I grant, as well as state grant funds and a seed-stage investment. SBIR grants are grants provided by federal government agencies to support companies that are commercializing high-tech products. We will be submitting an NSF Phase II application in February which, if awarded, will provide us with the funds we need for the next two years to complete pilot-scale production and additional gadusol testing. We also plan to begin looking for additional investment funds.

Where can I find additional information?

There’s quite a lot of press about the harmful effects of sunscreen and the need for reef-safe formulations. Here’s just a few links that we find helpful: