From Freezing Coral Sperm To Coral IVF, Scientists Have Big Plans To Save The Barrier Reef

You’ve probably heard that coral reefs are important, but a lot of people underestimate just how crucial they are for our survival. Our planet needs healthy oceans to survive, and healthy oceans need healthy reefs. Our oceans provide 50% of the world’s oxygen, their coral reefs support 25% of all marine life and coastal blue carbon ecosystems store carbon dioxide 30-50 times faster than forests.

Basically, if reefs go, humans go. So it’s in our best interest to keep our reefs healthy. Which is why it’s so exciting that we have a bunch of clever scientists working on some pretty cool innovations to keep our reefs happy and healthy.

Enter the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP)funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation

This is the world’s largest and most ambitious effort to develop, test and deploy at-scale protection, restoration and adaptation interventions to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs globally can resist, adapt to, and recover from the impacts of climate change.

Here are just three examples of some mucho exciting projects.

Coral IVF

Credit: Southern Cross University

In an exciting world-first, scientists have successfully managed to achieve small-scale restoration using a technique called coral IVF. Basically, it involves collecting coral eggs and sperm (that’s right) called “spawn” from healthy reefs, raising them in tanks or specially designed floating pools, and then delivering them onto damaged reefs to help restore them.

Lead Researcher, Professor Peter Harrison, says “the ultimate aim of this process is to produce new breeding populations of corals in areas of the Reef that no longer have enough live corals present, due to being damaged by the effects of climate change”.

“It was thrilling to see the colonies we settled from microscopic larvae during the first small-scale pilot study on Heron Island in 2016 become sexually reproductive after five years … saving the Reef is a huge task, but having proof that these innovative, cutting-edge science works gives us hope.”

Coral Probiotics

Credit: Raquel Piexoto, KAUST

It seems we’re not the only ones who can benefit from a healthy dose of probiotics. Coral, like humans, contain a diverse community of hundreds of thousands of tiny microorganisms that call their bodies home, including bacteria and fungi. And a healthy microbiome is key to healthy coral.

Lead researcher Dr Lone Høj, is exploring how probiotic treatments can help infant coral settlements grow strong and resist disease.

“Just like in humans, we know that the balance between good and bad microbes is often disrupted in corals during times of stress,” she explains. 

“Research has further revealed that corals too can be given probiotics to increase their health and resilience to environmental stresses caused by climate change, like rising water temperatures.”

“By developing new types of probiotics and feeding techniques in our specialised National Sea Simulator facility, we aim to support the future mass-production and deployment of large numbers of healthy corals onto damaged reefs.” 


Credit: Gary Cranitch

Let’s talk about coral sperm again. Did you know that it’s only released once a year? Which isn’t exactly ideal if you’re trying to help grow healthy coral population. Well, scientists have found a way to successfully freeze coral sperm, which means it can be stored and transplanted onto damaged areas of the reef whenever needed. Isn’t that neat?

Dr Justine O’Brien is the Manager of Conservation Science at Taronga Conservation Society Australia. Her team has been collecting and freezing sperm from high conservation value corals since 2011. Which is great news for the reefs around the world and for humanity, really.

So far, Justine and her team have preserved about 30 species, and perhaps most importantly, they have successfully thawed and bred live coral from what she calls their CryoDiversity Bank or “frozen zoo”.

“There has been a significant loss of coral cover on the reef, particularly in response to impacts of climate change,” she explains. 

“It has been about 50 per cent over the last 35 years. But the genetic diversity of the reef is still relatively high. Genetic diversity is really the lynchpin for populations to persist in the future … If populations get too small and inbred, it puts ecosystems at risk of collapse.”

“So we’re trying to avoid this collapse, along with other interventions, by preserving as much diversity as we can with the aim of being able to infuse valuable genes back into coral populations in the future.”

To support the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s projects like the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, you can buy a Play For Purpose raffle ticket here