Saving Coral…Through Sperm Banks?

Marine biologist Mary Hagedorn has learned to freeze and reanimate coral cells

About one-third of all corals are in threat of extinction, and some coral experts say that we could lose reefs as we know them by 2050. (Mike Henley at National Zoo)

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“Corals normally spawn and reproduce, and they don’t need us to assist them,” says Knowlton. “But given the precarious state of reefs around the planet, it may well be that for some species, especially rare species, we are going to need to draw on these cryopreserved banks to make sure that they don’t go extinct.”

Hagedorn is working to develop other tools as well, honing a method of freezing small, one- to two-millimeter fragments of corals. In addition to reproducing sexually, coral can reproduce asexually—if a piece breaks off, it can take root in the sea floor and start a new colony. “Upon thawing, these small adults could be glued down and possibly become reproductive within years,” says Hagedorn. She is also an advocate for raising coral larvae in aquariums around the world. In Curacao, a group of scientists with SECORE, a coral consortium founded in 2002 that Hagedorn is a member of, is experimenting with rearing corals in a semi-natural environment, piping in water from a reef so that the young corals are exposed to the pathogens and temperature swings of the wild, without the predators.

Of course, cryopreservation and coral restoration must go hand in hand with working to improve the health of wild ecosystems. “It doesn’t do any good to put nice little juvenile corals that you have raised up from eggs and sperm out in the field if the conditions that killed the corals to begin with are still prevailing,” says Knowlton.

Hagedorn would ultimately like to see coral cell cryopreservation carried out on a global scale. “She’s taught me a lot about having passion for what you do, and having perseverance to stick it out and continue on with things you believe in,” says Ginnie Carter, a biotechnician in Hagedorn’s lab.

“If we lose our coral reefs, it will be the first ecosystem that we have lost while man is alive. It will be on our watch and most of it due to us. I don’t think that is acceptable,” says Hagedorn. She takes seriously the need for people to feel a personal responsibility to take care of the earth. “For me, my contribution is coral,” she says.


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