Researchers from Ohio State University have figured out how the enzyme responsible for repairing tissues damaged by radiation does its work. Specifically, we're talking about the type of the radiation burns that we all get from time to time: sunburns, and this discovery could mean a lotion that doesn't just make sunburns feel better, but actually cures them.
You might not think of a sunburn as a radiation burn, but that's what it is. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun penetrates your skin and damages your DNA, leading to redness (as your body sends blood to try to repair the damage) and eventual cell death (your skin peels off). Most plants and some animals produce an enzyme called photolyase, which can repair DNA damage, but we humans are just out of luck. Luckily, our species has gotten rather good at using science to make up for our (many) shortcomings, and figuring out how photolyase works is just the most recent example.
Scientists at OSU used a laser to take extreme high-speed photography of photolyase doing what it does. We're talking exposure times measured in trillionths of a second, which is fast enough to track an electron as it moves around a molecule. On the molecular level, UV radiation smashes into atoms in DNA strands, causing those atoms to form accidental bonds with the atoms around them. These bonds cause errors when the DNA strand replicates, potentially causing mutations and sometimes cancer. The photolyase enzyme counters this by firing an electron at these accidental bonds, breaking them up and returning the DNA strand to normal.
Now that we know how it works, it may be possible to manufacture photolyase and use it in a lotion, where it wouldn't just treat the burn (like aloe), but would actually go in and break up those nasty little bonds, repairing your DNA itself and keeping you pain (and cancer) free.