'Fertility clinic' could save the Great Barrier Reef


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Scientists gathered at November's mass coral spawning event in the Great Barrier Reef to collect billions of eggs and sperm in an effort to stop its corals becoming extinct.

This mass spawning is dubbed one of the most spectacular natural events of the year, when over 400 species of coral spew out clouds of tiny egg and sperm bundles in an extraordinary display that attracts tourists from all over the world and becomes a kind of feeding frenzy for marine animals.

The scientists' aim is to freeze the the sperm and embryonic cells in a bank at a coral fertility clinic at Taronga's Western Plains Zoo, so they can be used in the future.

The project is a joint venture involving experts from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), Taronga Zoo and the US Smithsonian Institution.

Mary Hagedorn, who is a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Institution, perfected the technique while working with corals in Hawaii.

The plan is to thaw out the genetic material at a later date and use it to grow new coral, which can then be introduced back to the ocean to help restore the reef.

Scientists are also reported to be trying for the first time to grow coral to sexual maturity, which can take up to three years, using eggs taken during the November spawning period and fertilising them with sperm that had been previously frozen.

To ensure corals re-introduced to the the reef have the best chances of success, scientists are using the world-class marine research aquarium facility called the Sea Simulator (SeaSim) as a nursery to rear juvenile corals. This high-tech system, located at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, reproduces the conditions of the ocean.

The coral bank is being supervised by a team headed by Rebecca Spindler, who said: "We know the Great Barrier Reef is in deep, deep trouble. We will never have as much genetic diversity again on the reef as we do right now. This is our last opportunity to save as much as we possibly can."

Since 1985, when AIMS began monitoring more than 100 locations on the reef, coral cover has diminished by an average of 50%. If its current rate of decline continues, it will halve again by 2022.

Climate change, ocean acidification, pollution and industrial development have all played a part in its decline.

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