Can a Sperm Bank Save Coral From Sour Seas?

By Sophie Bushwick | July 26, 2012 3:05 pm

coral reef
Coral reef at the Palmyra Atoll in the northern Pacific Ocean

It’s not a good time to be a coral. Less than a third of coral reefs have legal protection from fishing and other damaging human activity. And as climate change increases oceans’ temperature and acidity, corals are suffering from more bleaching events, when stressed corals spit out the symbiotic algae they need to survive, and weaker skeletons. By 2050, coral reefs might be a lost cause. While some researchers work to protect reefs, others are preparing for conservation to fail—by collecting frozen coral sperm.

As Michelle Nijhuis explains in a New York Times article, marine biologist Mary Hagedorn is gathering reproductive material from many corals so that even as reefs die off, researchers can work at maintaining various species’ genetic diversity and trying to ensure their survival.

A reproductive physiologist with the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Hagedorn, 57, is building what is essentially a sperm bank for the world’s corals. She hopes her collection—gathered in recent years from corals in Hawaii, the Caribbean and Australia—will someday be used to restore and even rebuild damaged reefs.

She estimates that she has frozen one trillion coral sperm, enough to fertilize 500 million to one billion eggs. In addition, there are three billion frozen embryonic cells; some have characteristics of stem cells, meaning they may have the potential to grow into adult corals.

Of course, even Hagedorn’s trillion coral sperm pale in comparison to the diversity of corals living wild today. But as conservationists face daunting odds in the scramble to save coral reefs, keeping a backup policy on ice isn’t a bad idea. Head over to the New York Times article to find out more about the dangers facing coral reefs, and the importance of saving endangered sperm.

Image courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service / Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Iain

    Corals didn’t exist at some time, yet here they are today. So are we the new GOD that determines what lives or dies off? Evolution goes on regardless of our bias. The lucky ones (who happen to be the fittest?) go on, others do not. Hey it’s only 245 Million years or so, not like the shark which has been around for 360 or more million years.
    Personally I think we need to save sharks.

  • Hypnotron

    We determine what lives or dies all the time. Mostly we determine what dies and it happens to be pretty much everything.

  • Superchkn

    @Lain – You should be questioning our environmental policies then, since humans are responsible for the climate changing at a faster pace than anytime in the past – and thus faster than evolution can adapt. We’ve already anointed ourselves as the new “God” and it’s only recently that the mainstream has finally started to question our self-appointed status as such.

  • Brian Too

    Let’s face it, we don’t often ‘decide’ to do these things. Most human-made extinctions, I would say are generally a result of:

    1). Unintended consequences;
    2). Complete ignorance;
    3). Perverse incentives;
    4). Pursuit of narrow goals;
    5). Short-term thinking.

  • Jay29

    Exactly. It’s a matter of trying to prevent *ourselves* from killing certain species, not worrying about the natural trend of evolution. I’m sure there are many short-sighted biologists and environmentalists don’t want any species to go extinct for any reason, but it certainly makes sense to prevent or undo wrongs initiated by we humans.

  • kent

    lain: u are wrong… coral exist 1st before the shark. coral first appeared in cambrian period at 542 million years ago. shark just appeared 420 million years ago..cheers:)


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