Coral reefs are some of the oldest, most diverse ecosystems on Earth, and they are some of the most valuable. They nurture more than a quarter of all marine life, protect our homes and cities from storms, and maintain livelihoods by adding more than $300 billion annually to our global economy. Despite their importance, the world’s coral reefs are in peril. Locally, reefs are damaged by pollution, nutrients and sedimentation from poor land-use, fishing and mining practices. Globally, increased greenhouse gases are warming and acidifying oceans, making corals more susceptible to stress, bleaching and newly emerging diseases, causing a widespread reef crisis. As global temperatures rise, we have to do more than preserve habitat alone if we are to save corals.
In a race to save reefs around the world, Dr. Mary Hagedorn of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) is leading an international network of scientists, known as the Reef Recovery Initiative, to create the world’s first frozen coral bank. Dr. Hagedorn’s innovative scientific method uses cryopreservation to store coral tissue, cells, and germ cells at very low temperatures to maintain their viability over hundreds of years. To date, Dr. Hagedorn’s team has successfully banked 21 coral species worldwide. Using their coral cryobank as a research platform, Dr. Hagedorn’s team is also developing husbandry techniques to grow coral from eggs to mature adults in nurseries which can then be planted out onto reefs. With this husbandry knowledge and a frozen bank of coral sperm, eggs and embryos, scientists can safeguard at-risk species and their genetic diversity, making it possible to bolster the health of wild populations years—or even centuries—later.
Training the next generation of conservationists, from high school students through post-doctoral fellows, is a high priority for the Reef Recovery Initiative. There will never be as much coral genetic diversity in our oceans as there is today, so Dr. Hagedorn and her team are acting quickly to train and mobilize a global network of cryobiologists to continue this work for generations to come.
The Paul M. Angell Family Foundation has provided critical support for the Reef Recovery Initiative to help advance this pioneering conservation science. Foundation funding has enabled Dr. Hagedorn’s team to bank new coral species, develop new husbandry knowledge, and train postdoctoral fellows in cryo-conservation techniques. Funding has also helped SCBI expand operations by enabling the creation of new research infrastructure in French Polynesia, and new nurseries in Hawaii and Moorea.