Dec. 8 - Faced with an alarming loss of coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, scientists in Queensland are building a coral sperm bank to protect as many species as possible against extinction. A 2012 study estimates the reef has lost more than half of its coral cover since 1985, and the researchers fear that if the trend is not reversed, the sperm bank may be its last hope. Sharon Reich reports.
Every year, when conditions are optimal, the corals of Australia's Great Barrier Reef release billions of eggs and sperm into the ocean, where they come together to form new colonies. But the cycle of reproduction is now being overwhelmed by environmental factors that, over the last several decades have decimated the coral. The reefs are shrinking at an alarming rate, and one group of researchers say a radical response is needed if the corals are to be saved from extinction. Led by Doctor Mary Hagedorn of the Smithsonian Institution, they are building a coral sperm bank. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOCTOR MARY HAGEDORN, MARINE BIOLOGIST, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, SAYING: "The idea was to bring cryopreservation technology to the Great Barrier Reef," The technology is the same as that used to preserve human sperm. Coral samples are collected and deep frozen in liquid nitrogen where they'll be stored indefinitely. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOCTOR MARY HAGEDORN, MARINE BIOLOGIST, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, SAYING: "It creates a coral fertility clinic and we bank down the coral sperm and the stem cells, the coral stem cells and we put them in the bank to hold them for now but to use them in the future." They're hoping the bank won't be necessary..and that the reefs recover on their own. But Dr Rebecce Spindler says it pays to be prepared and that the team is making progress. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DOCTOR REBECCA SPINDLER, TARONGA CONSERVATION SOCIETY, SAYING: "We've just collected our sixth species to be added in the bank, and that makes this the biggest cryopopulation in the world apart from humans." The researchers say that preserving the corals in the Great Barrier Reef could also help protect countless other species that depend on the reef for their own survival. They say the sperm bank could be a life-saving hedge against current and future threats to one of the great natural wonders of the world.