A last chance to save Australia’s Great Barrier Reef: Scientists launch audacious plan to create ‘fertility clinic’ to breed endangered coral

The world’s largest living organism has shrunk by about half over the past 30 years as a result of climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on coral

A A A

The spring spawning of coral on the Great Barrier Reef is a grand affair, with vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean turning red as millions of sperm and eggs are released, in a spectacle that is visible from space.

Last month, divers and snorkellers marvelling at the event were joined by scientists with a deadly serious purpose: to harvest billions of sperm and eggs, and then freeze them, in an effort to save corals in the World Heritage-listed reef from extinction.

The world’s largest living organism has shrunk by about half over the past 30 years as a result of climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on coral.

Some of its 400 or so species are endangered or threatened, and marine biologists fear they could soon be wiped out. The establishment of a gene bank, using human fertility techniques, is a bold response by scientists seeking to conserve the reef, which runs for 1,600 miles off the Queensland coast. “We create a coral fertility clinic and we put them [the sperm and embryonic cells] in a bank, to hold them for now, but to use them in the future,” Mary Hagedorn, from the US’s Smithsonian Institution, said.

Dr Hagedorn, a marine biologist who perfected the techniques while working with coral in Hawaii, is liaising with Australian colleagues to deploy those techniques in the cause of conservation. Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science helped to gather samples for the DNA bank, which has been set up at Western Plains Zoo in the town of Dubbo, in the New South Wales outback, 250 miles from the sea.

The project is akin to a captive breeding programme for endangered animals. If all goes according to plan, the genetic material will be thawed and used to grow new coral which will then be reintroduced into “the wild” – transplanted back into the ocean – to help restore and repopulate damaged reefs.

Some of the samples will be used for research aimed at improving coral’s resilience and ability to adapt to changing conditions, while some will remain in storage indefinitely – for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.

Dr Hagedorn told the Townsville Bulletin that the gene banks – there are plans to set up a second bank in Townsville – were “like arks”, with at-risk coral species identified and preserved for posterity.

Sperm and cells from eight species have already been stored in the Dubbo bank, which is supervised by a team headed by Rebecca Spindler. “We know the Great Barrier Reef is in deep, deep trouble,” said Dr Spindler. “We will never have as much genetic diversity again on the reef as we do right now. This is our last opportunity to save as much as we possibly can.”

Like other reefs around the world, the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by climate change, with a warmer ocean making it more vulnerable to disease and to “bleaching” – the process where corals expel the colourful algae which they rely on for food, and which can lead to them dying. Coral growth is also being inhibited by ocean acidification, caused by rising carbon dioxide.

The reef – which actually consists of nearly 3,000 individual reefs – is also being eroded by pollution caused by agricultural and industrial run-off, and by the crown-of- thorns starfish. Some of the latter, which devour their size in coral cover every day, weigh up to 80 kilos.

Sperm and cells from eight species of coral from the reef have already been frozen and stored Sperm and cells from eight species of coral from the reef have already been frozen and stored (Getty)
Along the Queensland coast, industrial development – particularly dredging, carried out to enable large vessels to enter ports – presents another threat. The federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, is about to rule on an application to dredge at Abbott Point, in north Queensland, in order to expand the port there and increase coal exports.

Dr Hagedorn has already cryogenically preserved coral sperm and embryonic cells in Hawaii (whole eggs cannot be frozen). “We put them into cryo-tubes, and then we float them on a little lake of liquid nitrogen that freezes them at about 20 degrees per minute, down to minus 196 [Celsius],” she told Australia’s ABC radio. “And then we immerse them in liquid nitrogen and then put them in a dry shipper [container].”

Researchers plan to use the Marine Science Institute’s new “Sea Simulator” – a high-tech aquarium which can mimic the sea’s physical conditions, including temperature and water quality – as a nursery ground for rearing juvenile corals, and to test ways of reintroducing them to the reef.

Although cyro-preservation has been around since 1950, when the British biologist Christopher Polge produced chicks from eggs fertilised with frozen sperm, each species requires different techniques. Dr Spindler hopes to grow in-vitro reefs which can be used to re-seed wild populations. Western Plains Zoo already houses Australia’s main wildlife reproductive laboratory.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us