Published On: Wed, Aug 19th, 2020

Coral reef bombshell: How ‘lab-fertilised’ coral breakthrough could save dying ecosystems | Science | News

For generations, coral reefs – particularly those in the Caribbean – have been severely damaged as a result of climate change, overfishing and pollution, pushing these vital spaces to near-extinction. The concern for scientists is how to not only protect these habitats, but also how to ensure their long-term futures, as reefs – also known as ‘rainforests of the sea’ – are often prone to breaking down and degrading. Marine biologists are continuing their battle, with experts diving into reefs and breaking them into fragments, in a bid to encourage faster growth.

But according to Jenny Mallon, an expert in coral reef biogeochemistry at the University of Glasgow, scientists in the Caribbean are now undertaking exciting research into how these reefs can be grown in a lab before being moved back onto reefs.

Ms Mallon, writing for The Conversation, detailed the work being carried out by the CORALIUM Laboratory of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which is part of a Caribbean-wide group of coral spawning experts aiming to buck reefs’ damaging trend.

She claims scientists at these organisations currently “collect sperm and eggs from multiple Caribbean reefs in order to fertilise them in the lab”.

She said: “The team wait for the full moon to signal when corals are likely to spawn. Coral sperm and eggs are collected with floating nets and plastic containers, and divers take extreme care to avoid damaging the reef.

“The millions of sperm and eggs collected are rushed back to the lab where they’re cleaned and monitored all night as they undergo assisted fertilisation to begin life as free swimming larvae. These larvae are very sensitive to water quality, temperature and pathogens, so they need constant care.”

The expert added: “Eventually, the larvae settle on hard surfaces where they change into polyps – the initial building blocks of a coral colony. In the ocean, these surfaces are often dead coral skeletons. In the lab, they are seeding units – 3-D shapes designed to resemble coral rubble that can float on ocean currents before resting on reefs.”

Coral is vitally important to the planet, and shallow coral reefs form some of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems.

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Ms Mallon explained that colonies that are still living are “relatively isolated, reducing the chances of them being able to crossbreed”.

Yet, she added: “But in the controlled conditions of the lab, fertilisation rates of over 80 percent are common and larval survival is high.

“That means thousands of juvenile corals are reared until they’re ready for the reef after just a few weeks of incubation.”

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