A Melanin Breakthrough That May Save Your Skin

July 23, 2018

Scientists have developed a new approach for producing materials that mimic melanin, which has several useful properties, including offering protection from UV radiation.

photo of melanin samples in petri dishes

Melanin — the pigments that give color to skin, hair and eyes — has numerous useful qualities, including offering protection from cancer-causing UV radiation and free radicals, but also electronic conductance, adhesiveness, and the capacity to store energy.

To take advantage of these qualities, scientists based at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center, CUNY, have developed a new approach for producing materials that not only mimic the properties of melanin, but also provide unprecedented control over expressing specific properties of the biopolymer, according to a paper published in Science. The discovery could lead to the creation of novel cosmetic and biomedical products.

Unlike other biopolymers, such as DNA and proteins, melanin is inherently disordered, so directly relating structure to function is not possible. As a result, researchers have been unable to fully exploit melanin’s properties because the laboratory-based synthesis of melanin has been hampered by the difficulty of engineering its disorderly molecular structure.

“We took advantage of simple versions of proteins — tripeptides, consisting of just three amino acids — to produce a range of molecular architectures with precisely controlled levels of order and disorder,” said lead researcher Rein V. Ulijn, director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the ASRC and Albert Einstein Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College. “We were amazed to see that, upon oxidation of these peptide structures, polymeric pigments with a range of colors — from light beige to deep brown — were formed.”

The findings published in Science build on previous research conducted by Ulijn. He and his team, including postdoctoral ASRC researcher Ayala Lampel, the paper’s first author, are now pursuing commercialization of this new technology, which includes possibilities in cosmetics and biomedicine.