Climate change and thus raising ocean temperatures are a significant threat to coral reefs around the world. I’m sure you’ve seen a nature program or read a news article talking about the importance of coral species to the ecosystem of our planet. In fact, second only to phytoplankton, healthy coral communities are one of the most vital components of marine biodiversity.
So far, the news for our planet’s coral reefs, the largest and most famous being The Great Barrier Reef, hasn’t been good. Coral reefs can only thrive within a narrow-range of environmental conditions and any disturbance has a far-reaching knock-on effect for the many aquatic species that rely on the reef. Sadly, over the last four decades, as much as 80 percent of all coral in the Caribbean has disappeared.
However, a recent breakthrough in coral research may provide a way that conservationists can productively fight back. For the first time, coral raised in a lab has been successfully integrated into a wild population and reproduced on its own.
Valerie Chamberland, a coral reef ecologist working at non profit conservation group SECORE said in a news release: “In 2011, offspring of the critically endangered elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) were reared from gametes collected in the field and were outplanted to a reef one year later.”
“In four years, these branching corals have grown to a size of a soccer ball and reproduced, simultaneously with their natural population, in September 2015,” Chamberland continued. “This event marks the first ever successful rearing of a threatened Caribbean coral species to its reproductive age.”
There are several bodies working on coral restoration projects at the moment, but the techniques employed in SECORE’s research are unique—making this breakthrough even more important.
So far, most coral conservation efforts involve a technique known as ‘coral gardening’. The process involves taking small fragments of coral from the wild and caring for it under controlled conditions in the lab. After growing to a healthy size, the corals are replanted on the reef. One disadvantage of this technique though, is that it limits the expansion of genetic diversity—since the same gene combinations are added back to the coral community.
SECORE scientists, with the help of researchers from the University of Amsterdam and the Carmabi Marine Research Station in Curacao, have developed a technique for producing coral embryos using vitro fertilization in the lab. The embryos develop into mobile larvae, which eventually take up residence in a substrate. The maturing substrates are then replanted on the reef.
SECORE’s technique leads to greater biodiversity within the restored coral community. The latest evidence, detailed in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, shows that this method is ‘capable of creating coral that can reproduce in the wild, and contribute to a colony’s genetic diversity.’
Featured Photo: SECORE