Smithsonian Freezing Coral Embryos to Save Great Barrier Reef

reaching for corals photo

Photo by Eulinky via Flickr CC

Back in 2009, scientists posed that we should start freezing corals in liquid nitrogen when it became clear that corals are going through extreme difficulties with pollution, the chance in the ocean's pH balance, and warming temperatures. The hope is that these corals can later be used to replenish species. Now, the Smithsonian and other partners are beginning to act on this proposal.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and partner organizations, including the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Monash University and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, are starting with corals from the Great Barrier Reef. The coral sperm and embryonic cells will be put in a bank, much like the growing number of seed banks around the world, and in theory the sperm and cells will be able to be used to restore or repopulate areas of the coral reef anywhere from 50 to 1,000 years from now. According to Smithsonian, "Done properly over time, samples of frozen material can be reared and placed back into ecosystems to infuse new genes into natural populations, thereby helping to enhance the health and viability of wild stocks."

Scientists are eager to get started on the project now while there is still a variety of healthy corals -- the longer we wait to move forward, the fewer species we may have to save. The Great Barrier Reef has been home to some success stories in coral conservation, including the creation and enforcement of marine sanctuaries and fishing regulations that have helped corals bounce back. However, the increasing acidity of the ocean and the warming temperatures are something from which even sanctuaries can't protect corals. Sadly, the sooner the better if we want to do something to save corals for future generations.

According to Smithsonian, "While scientists have successfully used frozen sperm from coral to fertilize fresh coral eggs, their next focus is on developing techniques to use frozen coral embryonic cells to help restore coral populations. This research will play a large role in helping to conserve the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches 1,800 miles along the Queensland coast of Australia and includes the world's largest collection of corals."

Not only will their research potentially help the Great Barrier Reef, but the techniques and strategies learned here will benefit coral reefs elsewhere in the world.

Mary Hagedorn, a marine biologist at SCBI, is responsible for creating the first frozen repositories for endangered elkhorn coral and Hawaiian mushroom coral, and will be working with the partner organizations to freezestaghorn coral from the Great Barrier Reef as a start. The researchers will need to work quickly -- scientists believe we only have 50 to 100 years before we experience a mass extinction of corals, and with it a loss of $30 billion annually to the global economy and the home over over 25% of all marine species.

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