Study links 'sun-seeking behavior' to genes involved in addiction

A large-scale study from King's College London explores the link between genetics and sun-seeking behaviors.

sun light shining on grass

The health benefits of sunlight have been heavily researched - but can you really be addicted to the sun?

Credit: Grisha Bruev on Shutterstock
  • There are a number of physical and mental health benefits to sun exposure, such as boosted vitamin D and serotonin levels and stronger bones.
  • Addictions are multi-step conditions that, by definition, require exposure to the addictive agent and have also been proven to have a genetic factor. Countless people are exposed to addictive things, but not all become addicted. This is because of the genetic component of addiction.
  • This large-scale study explores the link between sun-seeking behaviors and the genetic markers for addiction.

    The benefits of sunlight

    woman sitting on dock in the sunlight

    The mental and physical health benefits of sunlight have been heavily researched.

    Credit: eldar nurkovic on Shutterstock

    The benefits of sunlight have been widely discussed for many years. In fact, there are a number of physical and mental health benefits to sun exposure.

    Sunshine (and the lack of) impacts your hormone levels.

    Sunlight (and alternatively, the lack of sunlight) triggers the release of certain hormones in your brain. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase serotonin, which is associated with boosting your mood and helping you feel calm and focused.

    Alternatively, dark lighting triggers melatonin, a hormone that is helpful in allowing you to rest and fall asleep. Without enough sunlight, your serotonin levels can dip - and low serotonin levels have been associated with a higher risk of major depression with seasonal pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder).

    Sunlight can build strong bones.

    Exposure to the ultraviolet-B radiation in the sun's rays can interact with your skin, causing it to create vitamin D. According to NHS, vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body. A lack of vitamin D can lead to bone deformities or bone pain. A 2008 study has shown that even 30 minutes in sunlight (while wearing a bathing suit) can boost vitamin D levels.

    Can sunlight actually prevent cancer?

    Although heavy exposure to sunlight has been proven to contribute to certain skin cancers, a moderate amount of sunlight has actually been shown to have preventative benefits.

    According to a 2008 study from the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, those who live in areas with fewer daylight hours are more likely to have some specific cancers (including but not limited to colon cancer, ovarian cancer, and prostate cancer) than those who live in areas with increased daylight hours.

    Additionally, sunlight has been shown to help people with skin conditions such as psoriasis.

    According to the World Health Organization, sun exposure may also be able to help treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, jaundice, and acne. Some research has also indicated the sun benefits people who struggle with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), systemic lupus erythematosus, and inflammatory bowel disease.

    Can you be addicted to the sun?

    hands holding up the sun

    The large-scale study examines the link between addiction and sunlight, with some surprising results...

    Credit: KieferPix on Shutterstock

    Addictions are multi-step conditions that, by definition, require exposure to the addictive agent. Due to the increase of serotonin (a chemical in the human body that has been proven to help reduce depression, regulate anxiety, and maintain bone health), it's natural that being exposed to prolonged periods of sunlight could become somewhat addictive to the human body and mind. We crave things that make us feel good, and sometimes those cravings become something we depend on. This is the very nature of addiction.

    Countless people are exposed to addictive things (substances, medications, and yes, even the sun), but not all become addicted. This is because of the genetic component of addiction.

    A large-scale study from King's College in London examines more than 260,000 people to better understand how sun-seeking behavior in humans can be linked to genes involving addiction, behavior traits, and brain function.

    The study included two phases:

    Phase one suggested genetics play a role in sun-seeking behaviors and phase 2 helped pinpoint what those genetic markers are.

    Phase 1: The researchers studied the detailed health information of 2,500 twins, including their sun-seeking behavior and their genetics. Identical twins in a pair were more likely to have similar sun-seeking behavior than non-identical twins, indicating that genetics plays a role here.

    Phase 2: The team of researchers then were able to identify five key gene markers involved in this sun-seeking behavior from further analysis of 260,000 participants. Some of the genes indicated have been linked to behaviors traits that are associated with risk-taking and addiction (including smoking and alcohol consumption).

    What does this study really prove?

    Some may think it's natural to become addicted to something that makes you feel good. The physical and mental health benefits of the outdoors have been heavily studied...so what does this study really mean?

    First and foremost, it means more research needs to be done to examine the link between human conditions and exposure to sunlight. Senior author Dr. Mario Falchi explains to the King's College London News Center: "Our results suggest that tackling excessive sun exposure or use of tanning beds might be more challenging than expected, as it is influenced by genetic factors. It is important for the public to be aware of this predisposition, as it could make people more mindful of their behavior and the potential harms of excessive sun exposure."

    Additionally, it could mean alternative treatments, and further research needs to be conducted in terms of how we treat certain conditions that are caused or heavily influenced by human exposure to sunlight.

    U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

    Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

    U.S. Navy ships

    Credit: Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
    • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
    • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
    Keep reading Show less

    Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

    She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

    Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
    Technology & Innovation

    This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

    Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

    CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

    So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

    The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

    This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

    Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

    I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

    I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

    Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

    Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

    Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

    Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

    When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

    We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

    Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

    Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

    There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

    We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

    Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

    This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

    Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

    Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

    There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

    What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

    Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

    There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

    There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

    When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

    Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

    We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

    Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

    Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

    The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

    Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

    A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

    Megalodon attacks a seal.

    Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
    Surprising Science
    • A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
    • The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
    • The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast