Scientists have developed a chip that can identify the most environmentally tolerant coral and are planning to use it to increase the share of live corals off Taiwan’s north and northeast coasts, where Ocean Conservation Administration data showed that it has dropped to below 10 percent.
The health of coral reefs, which play a similar role in maritime ecology to rainforests on land, is crucial, as they are a habitat for a wide range of species.
The development of the chip was part of a coral restoration project headed by Academia Sinica Biodiversity Center research fellow Tang Sen-ling (湯森林), Academia Sinica Research Center for Applied Sciences research fellow Cheng Ji-yen (鄭郅言) and Shinya Shikina, an associate professor in National Taiwan Ocean University’s Institute of Marine Environment and Ecology. The project is based at the Ocean Resources Restoration Park in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District (貢寮).
Photo: Yang Yuan-ting, Taipei Times
“We are using abandoned abalone breeding pools to restore coral,” Shikina said. “There are 14 steel tables near the bottom of the pools, and they are proper breeding grounds for coral. The nets covering these tables can be used to collect coral planulae as well.”
Cheng said the microfluidic chip helps cut the time needed to select coral for breeding to one month from three months.
It has dramatically decreased the number of samples that scientists need to examine, he said.
Photo courtesy of National Taiwan Ocean University Institute of Marine Environment and Ecology assistant professor Shikina Shinya
“We can now analyze [a sample] by simply examining a coral slice of about 1cm2,” Cheng said, adding that Academia Sinica is the only institution in the world that has developed such a device.
The research team has used the chip to analyze 300 samples collected from coral reefs and hopes to identify the best specimens for cultivation off the north and northeast coasts.
The team hopes to transplant the coral from the breeding pools in Maoao Bay (卯澳灣) to the reefs in two years.
Tang said that team had narrowed down the probiotics needed to facilitate coral growth.
They inject these probiotics into the breeding pools through an automatic spraying system that Cheng has developed, Tang said.
Private coral breeders can take advantage of the project’s coral cultivation technology, which deters coral poaching at reefs, Tang said.
Shikina said the project can trace its artificially bred coral’s DNA, adding that the technology can help the government regulate coral production and sale.
Shikina, who is from Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, said he was inspired by fishers in his home country, who have been cultivating coral for about 40 years.
“They were willing to teach me the techniques without any reservation because they were touched that I, an Okinawan, was going to cultivate coral in Taiwan,” he said. “They did not even take the money I offered to pay.”
After obtaining a doctoral degree from Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology in 2009, Shikina was offered three jobs — in Japan, the US and Taiwan.
He said his father encouraged him to take the job in Taiwan and he chose the position without a second thought.
“My father is a huge fan of Taiwan. He used to come here four to five times per year and spent at least 10 days here each time,” he said. “When I told him that I had accepted the position in Taiwan, he told me that it was an excellent choice, and I should never leave Taiwan.”
Cultivating coral requires more than just efforts from scientists and government agencies, Shikina said, adding that he has uploaded pictures of him cultivating coral to social media to communicate with the public about the importance of preserving the marine environment.
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