The Coral Cryobank

Jared Wade


October 1, 2010

Across the globe, coral is disappearing. This is disturbing not just because coral reefs provide diverse ecosystems that are home to some 25% of all marine species, but because they also offer a natural, coastal barrier to storm surge from hurricanes and typhoons. And due to rising sea-surface temperatures, increasing ocean acidification, pollution and overfishing, some fear that all 1,000 varieties of coral may be extinct by the end of the century. While that may sound dramatic, about a quarter of the planet's "underwater rain forests" have already vanished in the past 50 years.

But one group of scientists is not going to let that happen -- at least not completely. Researchers from London's Haereticus Environmental Laboratory are collecting and freezing as many coral species as possible to preserve them in perpetuity. If coral cannot survive on its own in today's ocean, it may be some time before conditions change enough to allow it to repopulate the sea. But if that time does come, at least now there will be a means to begin the process.

The concept comes from a similar doomsday plan that was devised to ensure humans will always be able to farm. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, completed in 2008 in Norway, now houses more than 500,000 seed varieties so that if ever there was a man-made or natural disaster great enough to wipe out major food production centers, the world would have a back-up plan and be able to begin anew.

Following that lead, Craig Downs of the Haereticus lab discovered how to freeze millimeter-long pieces of coral tissue at negative 330 degrees Fahrenheit in a way that it could later be thawed and regenerated. And now, along with funding and help from the Smithsonian, the University of Hawaii and other foundations, coral cryobanks are becoming a reality, the first of which is being housed at the University of Hawaii. It has already stored frozen sperm and embryonic cells from mushroom coral and rice coral.

There are still around 900 more species to go, but this is a good start.

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and a former editor of Risk Management.