Sperm bank could save the Great Barrier Reef


A zoo in Australia has created the largest collection of frozen coral in the world, which could one day be used to re-seed the Great Barrier Reef.

For the past two years, scientists from the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, working with the Smithsonian Institute and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have been helping to collect sperm and eggs during the once-a-year coral spawning event off the Queensland coast near Townsville and freezing them for storage at Taronga Western Plains Zoo.

Scientists - including Dr Rebecca Spindler and Dr Joanna Wiszniewski from the Taronga Conservation Society Australia - were present at the spawning event off the coast near Townsville in November last year.

The spawning only occurs once a year during spring after a full moon and is the only reproductive event that can be seen from space. Huge areas of the ocean turn a reddish colour from the slick of gametes released by the coral.

Dr Spindler said that during the spawn, sperm and eggs were collected from coral species and frozen and transported from the Great Barrier Reef over 1700 km to the Frozen Zoo located at TWPZ in Dubbo, New South Wales.

"This was the second trip in this vital conservation program for the Reef following the ground-breaking expedition in 2011," Dr Spindler said.

"In the seven days of each of the two spawning periods, we have created the largest collection of frozen coral in the world.

"We have added another branching coral species – the beautiful Acropora loripes and now some brain coral as well. Adding morphological diversity is essential to the effective restoration of reef function when it is required.

The technology that the team, named the Reef Recovery Initiative, used has been developed over the past eight years by Smithsonian Scientist, Dr Mary Hagedorn, who has applied them to reefs in the Caribbean and Hawaii and now on the Great Barrier Reef.

A collaboration of partners from the Smithsonian, the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, AIMS and Monash University, the Reef Recovery Initiative is helping create an insurance program for the Great Barrier Reef.

"One of the more significant aspects of this year’s collection was the addition of frozen 8-cell embryonic cells that are pluripotent, meaning that each cell has the potential to grow into new coral," Dr Spindler said.

"This technology for growing them is not advanced just yet but we will be ready when it forges ahead."

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