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Find out more from the Center for Biological Diversity:
Coral Conservation
Elkhorn coral
Staghorn coral
Reuters, August 23, 2010

Vault Freezes Coral Cells to Preserve Them From Extinction
By Jess McNally, Wired.com

In an effort to preserve the biodiversity of Hawaiian coral species, scientists at the University of Hawaii have created the first frozen coral cell bank — similar in concept to a seed bank for plants.

“Because frozen banked cells are viable, the frozen material can be thawed in one, 50 or, in theory, even 1000 years from now to restore a species or population,” said biologist Mary Hagedorn of the University of Hawaii in a press release. “In fact, some of the frozen sperm samples have already been thawed and used to fertilize coral eggs to produce developing coral larvae.”

Coral reefs are disappearing at an alarming rate due to warming, acidifying oceans and other types of human impact. Just last week, scientists reported that a spike in ocean temperatures off the coast of Indonesia is causing the most massive die-off ever seen in the region, already killing 80 percent of the coral species on several reefs. These types events are expected to get more frequent across the globe, with some scientists warning extinction of coral reefs is eminent within the next century.

Coral reefs cover less than a tenth of the ocean’s surface but are home to a quarter of all marine species. Corals enable this diversity by building complex structures where many creatures can live and hide.

Globally, there are approximately 1000 known reef-building coral species. Corals are primitive animals most closely related to jellyfish. The types of coral that build reefs get their color and most of their energy from symbiotic algae living within their cells. When water temperatures get hotter than corals they experience coral bleaching, where they expel their symbiotic algae, turn bleach white, and often die.

One of the other major factors threatening coral reefs is the oceans becoming more acidic from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In more acidic water corals have difficulty secreting their reef-building calcium carbonate shell.

So far, the Hawaiian coral cell bank has frozen sperm and embryotic cells from mushroom coral (Fungia scutaria) and rice coral (Montipora capitata). They aim to store as many species of Hawaiian coral as possible.

The work is being funded by the Smithsonian, University of Hawaii, Morris Animal Foundation, and Anela Kolohe Foundation.

© Copyright 2010 Thomson Reuters

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton