The arid plains fringing Australia’s desert center are more suited to camels than blooms of coral, but here, hundreds of kilometers from the coast, a piece of the Great Barrier Reef has been put on ice.
Suspended in a liquid nitrogen chamber at minus-196 ?C, the 70 billion sperm and 22 billion coral embryos are part of an ambitious Australian-first project to preserve and perhaps one day regenerate the world-famous reef.
“We know the Great Barrier Reef is in deep, deep trouble because of a number of different things — global threats including climate change and acidification of waters as well as the warming of waters,” said Rebecca Spindler, the project’s director.
“We will never have as much genetic diversity again as we do right now on the reef, this is our last opportunity to save as much as we possibly can,” she said
Spindler’s team is working with Hawaii-based Mary Hagedorn from the Smithsonian Institute to collect and freeze samples from the World Heritage-listed reef, a sprawling and vivid natural wonder visible from space.
In order to maximize the amount of reproductive cells — gametes — collected the team cut away sections of the reef and took them back to land-based tanks to spawn, an event that only occurs for three days a year.
Experts from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a major partner in the research, then tagged the reef sections and returned them to Orpheus Island, literally gluing them back to their original sites.
They plan to build up a catalogue of coral species as insurance against increasing bleaching linked to ocean warming and acidification and threats including chemical run-off, dredging and damage from cyclones and floods.
Eventually Spindler hopes to grow in-vitro reefs that can be used to reseed wild populations — something she is “confident” will be possible in a few years time. Experts at Dubbo’s Western Plains Zoo, Australia’s top wildlife reproductive lab, keep the frozen reef ticking over with regular liquid nitrogen top-ups while they explore optimal conditions for reviving and mating the coral.
Some 400km inland from the coast and far closer to desert than ocean, Dubbo seems an unlikely location for marine research. Giraffes, rhinos and elephants roam the 300-hectare zoo and the lab, which backs onto a mating enclosure for the endangered Tasmanian devil, is a hive of hormonal experiments using animal droppings and urine.
Spermologist Nana Satake did her doctorate in pig reproduction and usually works with African and native animals, but she sees the Reef Recovery Project as an exciting challenge.
“The Great Barrier Reef is really a bit of an enigma — there’s very little [research been] done on coral reef production from [its] coral species,” Satake said, describing it as the “rainforest of the ocean.”
“Coral is one of the most unique species of the world, really of any organism, because they actually have all types of reproduction — they can reproduce asexually and sexually,” she said.
Once more had been learned from this initial round of samples, taken from two foundational types of coral, Satake said work could be done on more endangered species.
Spindler said Australia’s corals had so far dodged the kind of damage from climate change, disease and human impacts seen in the world’s other reefs but described the next few years as critical, with some species already feared lost.