Image via University of Hawaii at Manoa, Credit: Virginia Carter
As corals face a daily bashing through warm, polluted waters, the scientists at University of Hawaii at Manoa and the Smithsonian Institution are building up a bank of frozen sperm and embryos of Hawaiian coral species, just in case. The diversity of coral species is vital to Hawaii's marine ecosystems, providing the habitat necessary for the survival of the myriad of fish, crustacean and plant species around the islands. So of course, researchers want to do all they can to protect them from extinction. In theory, the frozen cells can be unfrozen even 1,000 years in the future to restore populations. Hawaiian corals are especially impacted by pollution, including sedimentation and nutrient run-off from agriculture and waste-treatment plants, as well as intensely destructive fishing practices such as dynamite fishing and trawling. Because action to create and enforce marine preserves to protect corals is slow and difficult, freezing future generations seems the more prudent and practical solution for immediate action.
The researchers from University of Hawaii state, "Unless action is taken now, coral reefs and many of the animals that depend on them may cease to exist within the next 40 years, causing the first global extinction of a worldwide ecosystem during current history. Saving reef habitat alone will not stop corals' decline because many of the most serious threats are global rather than local. Done properly over time, researchers can store samples of frozen material and place them back into ecosystems to infuse new genes and vigor into natural populations, thereby enhancing the health and viability of wild stocks."
The bank already contains frozen sperm and embryonic cells from mushroom coral and rice coral, but the researchers have a long way to go before all the important species are included in the role call.
This is likely just one of many frozen coral banks we'll see pop up worldwide, as last year researchers decided this strategy is the smartest way to ensure a future ocean that includes corals.
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