A sperm bank for corals of the Great Barrier Reef could help preserve the reef’s genetic diversity and aid in later restoration efforts.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and organizational partners, including the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Monash University and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, plan to put coral sperm and embryonic cells on ice. The frozen cells will remain alive for decades, maybe even centuries.

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“The Great Barrier Reef is iconic and of vast importance in terms of biological diversity and species richness,” said Mary Hagedorn, a marine biologist at SCBI in a press release. “A frozen repository will help ensure its incredible diversity and prevent future extinctions.”

“It is crucial that we begin ex situ conservation on coral reefs while their genetic diversity is still high,” said Hagedorn. “Although we hope we’ll never need to use these banks, the cost of not doing this work and subsequently losing valuable diversity and resources is too high.”

In the future, the sperm and embryonic corals could be thawed out to restore diversity to species decimated by pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, ship collisions, and destructive fishing practices.

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Hagedorn has successfully stored cells from other coral. She recently created the first frozen storehouses of an endangered elkhorn coral, Acropora palmate, and Hawaiian mushroom coral, Fungia scutari. The frozen sperm was successfully thawed and used to fertilize fresh coral eggs.

The new project will involve a species of staghorn coral from the Great Barrier Reef, Acropora millepora.

IMAGE 1: Elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata. (Wikimedia Commons).