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Acropora tenuis spawning © A. Heyward

When marine research scientist Mary Hagedorn of Hawaii saw the BBC report on the coral bleaching that took place on the Northern Great Barrier Reef in Australia in April and May of 2016, she was devastated. The study reported that 67% of the northern reef had died. That’s 700km of biodiversity loss.

Hagedorn is a marine biologist, physiologist and Director of Marine GEO, a partnership between Smithsonian Institute and the University of Hawaii-Manoa on Coconut Island in Hawaii. She is leading the charge amongst marine biologists to save the world’s coral reefs using modern reproductive technology, specifically cryopreservation.

Mary Hagedorn is leading the charge in cryopreservation. Source © Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Hagedorn is developing the world’s first genetic seed bank for coral, the goal being to preserve the biodiversity of reefs and keep extinction at bay.

In partnership with Australia’s Taronga Conservation Society and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a group of scientists collaborating with Hagedorn have been working to collect coral samples via an oceanographic vessel based out of Townsville in Queensland. Because of this, the team is using material collected only within the central Great Barrier Reef.

Northern Great Barrier Reef © Kirstin Scholtz/WildArk

To date, they have banked 11 species of coral on the Great Barrier Reef. They can use this frozen and thawed sperm to create new coral, which may be a crucial addition to coral restoration in the years to come. The coral bank for Australia is at Taronga’s Cryoreserve in Dubbo and is the largest wildlife bank in all of Australia.

Hagedorn’s team also specialises in generating new techniques for the cryopreservation of other types of coral tissues. For example, the team is in the process of developing the techniques to freeze fragments or micro fragments (smaller than your index finger) that scientists may be able to use to transplant and grow more coral in the future.

Freezing sperm at Australian Institute of Marine Studies © Steve Clarke

Coral bleaching takes away valuable food sources and leads to starvation of coral. Specifically, the lack of their critical internal algae, which feeds the coral, results in reduced fats needed in sperm and egg cells. The result is smaller or immature eggs which result in less fertile species of coral.

According to scientists working on micro fragments at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, “You can take a micro-fragment of brain coral for example and glue pieces onto a rock. These tiny micro fragments kickstart a super growth on the coral, and they grow, infuse and completely cover the rock within a year or so.”

Hagedorn wants to take these steps further.

“We want to put sexually produced corals (cryopreserved corals) out on the reef, we want to help other scientists make hybrids that are more resilient and better able to deal with warmer temperatures, and we want to do this micro fragmentation,” says Hagedorn.

Hagedorn’s team will work with numerous partners, including the Coral Restoration Foundation headed up by Ken Nedimyer, who has successfully established over 30 coral nurseries in the Caribbean.

“We need to put our research together with other international collaborators to establish which results are best. It’s great to use our banks and collect the materials, but we need to be able to demonstrate to people how we use them and how they could be employed in the future. Unless we have a great demonstration, people won’t believe it. So this is proof of concept and also pushing of all of the limits on different restoration techniques, just to see what is going to really work.”

© Kirstin Scholtz/WildArk

“We are up against global challenges that we are not doing anything to address the warming of the air, the ocean nor our use of fossil fuels. That’s where our bank comes in, not only are we doing this; we are providing humanity with an option.”

For Hagedorn, it has been an uphill battle trying to protect the Great Barrier Reef for lack of funding. The majority of financing has come from Taronga Conservation Society, Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Smithsonian Institute.

Mary and her team hope that their work will make a real difference to establishing a bank of resilient strains of coral that will rebuild the highly threatened Great Barrier Reef and other reefs throughout the world. To find out more about this critical project or support the initiative, go to the Freezing the Reef Project.

Source: Smithsonian Marine Geo