The Great Barrier Reef is being depleted of pollution and climate change. Could ‘Coral IVF’ save it?

The idea of ​​restoring coral reefs by intervening in the coral breeding process came to Peter Harrison as he drifted through trillions of coral eggs and semen swirling in an underwater snowstorm during a mating ritual at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which takes place every year in the romantic light of a full moon.

That moment, in the early 1980s, sparked lifelong research for Harrison, a professor at Australia’s Southern Cross University – and culminated in the development of a process he describes as something like in vitro fertilization. (IVF) for the reef.

In November, his research hit a remarkable milestone when coral children born through the first coral IVF trial at the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 matured corals and began spawning – hopefully seeing a new generation of corals.
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Harrison says human intervention has become necessary to help repopulate the Great Barrier Reef because of a “perfect cocktail of destruction” that the reefs face. This includes pollution, coastal developments that damage ecosystems and warmer waters and intensify storms – both of which can be at least partly attributed to climate change. “Reefs lose corals, and more importantly, they lose breeding corals much faster than most of them get enough larvae now to rebuild naturally,” he says.

Auscape / Universal Images Group / Getty ImagesHard corals (Acropora sp.), Spawn in Lizard Island National Park, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

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The good news about his coral reefs could not have come at a more crucial time for the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, stretching about 1,420 miles along Australia’s northeast coast. The reef has been exposed to three major bleaching events in the last five years. It is changes in water conditions that cause corals to die. Many corals die as a result of the stress of mass bleaching events – further depleting the reef. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, temperatures could rise enough to trigger yet another mass bleaching before January ends.

These bleaching events had profound effects on the reef. In 2020, a study by the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies Queensland revealed that more than half of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef have been destroyed by warmer waters due to climate change.

Harrison, who has been given the title “coral IVF pioneer” by other scientists, may know just more than anyone else about how corals get on. He was part of the team that discovered that Great Barrier Reefs corals breed during a single annual mass spawning event. This discovery transformed the world’s understanding of corals’ sexual reproduction.

Heron Island 2016 Coral IVF babies Acropora spathulata branching coral shows mature pink eggs and sperm packs CREDIT Christina Langley
Christina Langley Acropora. spathulata, Acropora branch coral is now five years old with mature pink eggs ready for spawning and sperm packs.

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Harrison’s coral IVF process begins by capturing matter from several coral spawning slicks around the reef, which form in a pink film on the ocean surface during spawning events. He and his team use floating nets with booms that are similar to those used to contain oil spills – or a net that looks like a modified swimming pool shimmer.

To increase fertilization rates and genetic diversity, eggs and sperm from different colonies can be mixed. The larvae are left to grow in a floating pool anchored near the reef for about a week, where they are safe from predators and they can be kept from drifting away.

Adapters are usually knocked down on depleted reefs when the right time has come. The net can be opened to let the larvae float over reef systems, or the larvae can be led directly onto the reefs. Researchers have also begun using AI-enabled robots called LarvalBots, which act as an “underwater crop duster” to deliver larvae. You can place the larvae on small pieces of coral for transfer to your reef.

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Professor Peter Harrison, pioneer in Coral IVF, measures concentrations of coral larvae on Heron Island
Southern Cross University Coral IVF pioneer Professor Peter Harrison measures concentrations of coral larvae in Heron Island, Australia.

Harrison’s work could be used to repopulate coral reefs around the world. The technique he has used to repopulate coral reefs in the Philippines is already working well. Half of the world’s coral reefs have died since the 1950s as a result of climate change, overfishing and pollution, according to a study published in September in the journal One soil. It means the destruction of marine habitats and the protection of coastal communities that are more vulnerable to extreme weather. By creating employment and attracting tourists who snorkel, reefs support the local economies.

Lesley Hughes is a professor of biology at Macquarie University and a member of the Climate Council, an Australian non-governmental organization. She believes that coral IVF research can be used as part of a comprehensive toolbox that will help the reef adapt to changing water and climate conditions. Other scientists are working on a host of creative solutions to save the reef – like a “sun shield” that can be sprayed on the surface of the ocean.

But Hughes warns that unless climate change is addressed, “any human intervention in reef communities, no matter how effective on a local scale, will be like trying to repair a broken leg with a bandaid.”

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Australia is a laggard in terms of climate action among developed countries, and it is one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquefied gas. On June 21, UNESCO recommended that the Great Barrier Reef be placed on a list of World Heritage Sites that are “in danger”, citing climate change as “the most serious threat” to the site. Following a vigorous lobbying campaign by the Australian Government, UNESCO decided to postpone a decision on the Great Barrier Reefs’ threatened status until next year.

Harrison agrees that his solution is not a silver bullet, but he hopes it can play an important role in saving the world’s reefs. Says Harrison: “We hope this buys us enough decades so we can continue to have functioning and breeding corals on enough reefs, so when we hopefully cope with climate change down to a more sensible level, we will still have corals and reefs. systems on our planet. “

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