Cryogenic Coral 'Seed Bank' Will Save Endangered Reefs

Humanity's impact on the oceans is crippling the world's coral. One researcher is freezing endangered corals to preserve them -- for centuries if necessary -- until the seas are once again safe.

Warming waters, overfishing, ocean acidification, pollution - the threat to the world's precious coral reefs and the biodiversity they support are many. But Smithsonian researcher Mary Hagedorn has a backup plan to save endangered corals. She is developing the first-ever coral bank, equipped with frozen sperm and eggs of coral species from around the world.

In it, the seed of endangered species will be stored until the seas are safe for them again. Even if it takes centuries.

According to a NOAA report published in 2008, "The world has effectively lost 19 percent of the original area of coral reefs; 15 percent are seriously threatened with loss within the next 10-20 years; and 20 percent are under threat of loss in 20-40 years."

Despite these mind-blowing statistics, "there is this belief that we do not have to worry about coral and they will be OK," Hagedorn told Discovery News. Just in case they are not, she and her team are ready.

Stationed in Hawaii, Hagedorn has already banked rice coral (Montipora capitata) and mushroom coral (Fungia scutaria) - shown above. And this is only the beginning.

Banking coral involves collecting hundreds to thousands of samples of a particular species.

"The trick is to get a sample that captures genetic diversity within a species. Coral reproduces sexually and asexually, so it is possible to end up with a lot of clones," Hagedorn explained. This is bad because reproducing identical species makes a community more vulnerable to diseases and other threats; greater genetic diversity increases the animals' chances of successfully adapting.

Back at the lab, Hagedorn freezes the samples. "It does not matter if the samples stay frozen for 5 minutes or 500 years, they should be the same." Then, she randomly selects a few to immediately thaw and grow - this checks their viability.

Many of the threats to corals, like warming oceans, are not going away any time soon. Coral banks provide a long-term solution so that hundreds of years from now, people can rely on these supplies to repopulate the ocean with coral.

Hagedorn admits it's possible that she'll never see the results of her own work.

Coral banks can potentially play a big role in short-term conservation efforts, too. Let's say there is a dying coral community and one of the issues plaguing the animals is a lack in genetic diversity. It is possible to implant coral similar genetics into the ailing reef and revive it.

Using similar species to prop up an endangered one is already a common practice with a variety of species. A good example is the Florida panther.

"At one point it was down to 60 individuals. During the time it took people to decide what to do, the number dropped down to 30," Hagedorn said. "Two scientists convinced the U.S. Congress and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to introduce the Texas puma, a genetically very similar species, into Florida. They brought in a couple pumas and it completely reinvigorated the panther population."

"Cryogenics has the opportunity to really bolster our natural resources and work as a good insurance policy for corals - and beyond," Hagedorn said.

Image: Ann Farrell, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii