by PhilipJ on 1 July 2007
Summer is here, and we’re all heading outdoors to enjoy the sun. But remember to take your sunscreen, since too much sunlight can damage your cells. Small doses of sunlight are needed to create vitamin D, but larger doses attack your DNA. Ultraviolet light is the major culprit. The most energetic and dangerous wavelengths of UV light, termed UVC, are screened out (at least for now) by the ozone in the upper atmosphere. However, the weaker UV light, termed UVA and UVB, passes through the atmosphere and is powerful enough to cause chemical changes in the DNA.
Ultraviolet light is absorbed by a double bond in thymine and cytosine bases in DNA. This added energy opens up the bond and allows it to react with a neighboring base. If the neighbor is another thymine or cytosine base, it can form a covalent bond between the two bases. The most common reaction is shown here: two thymine bases have formed a tight thymine dimer, with two bonds gluing the bases together. This is not a rare event: every second you are in the sun, 50 to 100 of these dimers are formed in each skin cell!
More from David Goodsell on this molecule here.