Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) are teaming up with other organizations to create a bank for storing reproductive coral cells. The bank will serve as a genetic safehold of coral species threatened by extinction. If ever faced with the loss of an important species, scientists could use the frozen embryonic and sperm cells to restore diversity to an ecosystem.
The collaboration is a sign of hope for ocean species conservation amidst mounting fears that the ocean’s genetic diversity could be lost to environmental degradation. By storing precious species, scientists have the option of injecting them back into the environment to boost the health and viability of ecosystems if such a need ever arises.
There’s no doubt that coral reefs are vital members of the ecosystem. They are considered irreplaceable for aquatic environments, serving a key role in biological and natural processes. They function as homes and nursery grounds for fish and invertebrates and countless species rely on them. During intense storms, coral protects coastlines from damage. They also serve a role beyond the ocean, filtering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Coral reefs are threatened for a number of reasons, but human pollution takes the blame for much of the destruction. Human threats include oil spills, sewage, fertilizers and runoff. Scientists believe that coral reefs could become extinct within the next 50 to 100 years, which would kill off many ocean species that rely on them.
“It is crucial that we begin ex situ conservation on coral reefs while their genetic diversity is still high. Although we hope we’ll never need to use these banks, the cost of not doing this work and subsequently losing valuable diversity and resources is too high,” said Mary Hagedorn, a marine biologist from SCBI, in a press release.
Hagedorn is credited with creating for first frozen stores of endangered Elkhorn coral, Hawaiian mushroom coral (Fungia scutari) and Acropora palmate.
Much of the conservation work is focused on the Great Barrier Reef, a 1,800 mile-long stretch of coral and the largest collection of corals in the world.
“The Great Barrier Reef is iconic and of vast importance in terms of biological diversity and species richness. A frozen repository will help ensure its incredible diversity and prevent future extinctions,” said Hagedorn.
So far, at least 19 percent of coral around the globe has been lost, and 15 percent more could be gone within the next two decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kent Carpenter, who directs the Global Marine Species Assessment, argues that coral extinction could affect the global ecosystem in unprecedented ways.
“You could argue that a complete collapse of the marine ecosystem would be one of the consequences of losing corals. You’re going to have a tremendous cascade effect for all life in the oceans,” he said, as quoted by Associate Press.
Conservationists suggest that cutting back on carbon emissions, limiting coastline development and otherwise protecting the ocean from pollution could slow the degradation.
But many scientists fear time is running out and it may be too late to turn the tides on coral loss. Freezing coral serves as the last resort for preserving species if their extinction becomes imminent.
The Smithsonian will be teaming up with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Taronga Zoo of Sydney and additional organizations to create the coral cell bank.
Photo Credit: epa.gov