Coral cryopreservation: what is it and why is it so important?

Coral cryopreservation: what is it and why is it so important?

Coral cryopreservation is a technique that involves preserving coral tissue or gametes (eggs and sperm) at very low temperatures

In 2020, scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) conducted a trial of coral cryopreservation on the Great Barrier Reef. This was the first time that coral cryopreservation had been attempted on a large scale in the field.

The trial involved collecting small pieces of coral from the Great Barrier Reef and freezing them in liquid nitrogen. The coral was then thawed and transplanted onto a damaged section of the reef in the hope that it would survive and grow.

The trial was part of a larger research project called the Great Barrier Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, which is aimed at finding ways to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef in the face of climate change and other threats. 

Coral cryopreservation: what is it and why is it so important?
First coral IVF babies on the Great Barrier Reef have produced next generation

What is 'coral cryopreservation'?

Coral cryopreservation is a technique that involves preserving coral tissue or gametes (eggs and sperm) at very low temperatures, often using liquid nitrogen. The goal of coral cryopreservation is to maintain the genetic diversity of coral species and to provide a means of propagating coral populations in the future.

Here are some potential positive and negative impacts of coral cryopreservation:

Positive impacts:

Genetic diversity: Coral cryopreservation can help to preserve the genetic diversity of coral species, which can help to ensure the long-term survival of these species and the ecosystems they support.

Propagation: Coral cryopreservation can provide a means of propagating coral populations, which can help to restore damaged reefs and support the recovery of coral reefs.

Biodiversity: Coral reefs are home to a wide range of marine life, and they support the ecosystems that these species rely on. Coral cryopreservation can help to preserve the biodiversity of coral reefs.

Negative impacts:

Cost: Cryopreservation can be a costly process, and it may not be feasible for all coral reefs or coral species.

Limited success: Cryopreservation is still a relatively new technique, and it is not yet clear how well it will work for all coral species. There is a risk that cryopreservation may not be successful for all coral species or may not be able to preserve all of the genetic diversity of a species.

Limited practical application: Cryopreservation may not be a practical solution for many coral reefs, especially those that are located in remote or hard-to-reach areas.

Ethical considerations: There are also ethical considerations to consider when it comes to cryopreservation, including questions about the role of humans in conserving and restoring natural ecosystems and the potential impacts on local communities and economies.

What are coral reefs?

Coral reefs are underwater structures made up of skeletons of coral, which are marine animals that secrete calcium carbonate to form hard, protective shells. It is found in shallow, warm waters in tropical and subtropical regions around the world.

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on earth, supporting a wide range of marine life, including fish, invertebrates, and other organisms. It also provides a number of important benefits to humans, including coastal protection, fisheries, tourism, and pharmaceuticals.

Though it provides a number of important benefits to humans, they play a vital role in supporting the ecosystems that we rely on. However, it is also important to recognise that coral reefs are just one part of a complex web of life on earth, and their conservation is not a standalone solution to the challenges we face.

That being said, there are a number of ways in which coral reefs can help to support human well-being and contribute to the long-term sustainability of our planet:

Coastal protection: Coral reefs provide a natural barrier that can help to protect coastlines from the impacts of storms and waves. This can help to reduce the risk of flooding and erosion, which can have serious consequences for human communities and infrastructure.

Fisheries: Coral reefs support important fisheries that provide food and income for millions of people around the world. Protecting coral reefs can help to ensure the long-term sustainability of these fisheries.

Tourism: Coral reefs are a major attraction for tourists, and they support important industries such as diving and snorkelling. Protecting coral reefs can help to ensure the long-term viability of these industries and the jobs and income they provide.

Carbon sequestration: Coral reefs absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which can help to mitigate the greenhouse effect and slow the rate of global warming.

Medicine: Coral reefs are a source of new drugs and other medical treatments that are being developed to address a variety of health issues. Protecting coral reefs can help to ensure that we have access to these important resources in the future.

Despite these benefits, coral reefs are under threat due to a variety of factors, including climate change, pollution, and overfishing. These threats can cause coral reefs to bleach (lose their colour) and die, which can have serious consequences for the marine life that depends on coral reefs and the humans who rely on them for food and other resources.

There are a number of alternatives to coral cryopreservation that are being used or explored as part of efforts to protect and restore coral reefs:

Coral propagation and transplantation: This involves collecting small pieces of coral from existing reefs and growing them in a laboratory or on a coral farm. The propagated coral can then be transplanted back onto reefs to help restore damaged areas.

Coral gardening: This involves collecting fragments of coral and attaching them to a substrate (such as a metal frame or PVC pipe) in a sheltered area. The coral fragments can then grow and eventually be transplanted onto reefs to help restore damaged areas.

Artificial reefs: Artificial reefs are man-made structures that are designed to mimic the functions of natural reefs. They can be used to provide habitat for marine life and to help protect coastlines from erosion and storms.

Restoration and rehabilitation: This involves a variety of approaches to help restore damaged reefs, including removing debris and invasive species, replanting coral, and improving water quality.

Overall, while coral cryopreservation is an important tool in the efforts to protect and restore coral reefs, it is just one part of a larger conservation and restoration strategy that involves a range of approaches and techniques.

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