Research published by scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) detailed the first successful technique to preserve and revive coral fragments. This will have wide-ranging implications on coral reef preservation, a pressing scientific issue due to climate change.
The new research, published Aug. 23 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications and led by Mary Hagedorn and E. Michael Henley, is promising for conservation efforts that aim to preserve the remaining corals. The study introduces the technique of cryopreservation, which allows for the preservation of biological materials for extended periods of time and ensures that the material can be restored to its previous functionality in the future with little to no damage.
The technique that the Smithsonian scientists developed is a form of cryopreservation called isochoric vitrification, a process by which corals are frozen quickly in a constant-volume chamber, keeping them alive.
Hagedorn, one of the researchers of the study, said this cryopreservation technique is important because it allows us to consider bigger-level change without the constant threat of extinction.
“Cryopreservation helps form a hedge against extinction because it gives us time to consider education and policy in times like where we are now with climate change,” Hagedorn told The Hoya.
The process itself involves preservation through transformation into glass (to prevent the formation of ice). This technique is used in other contexts as well, such as the preservation of human eggs and embryos.
According to Hagedorn, the development of this process involved trial and error, as well as an analysis of first principles and feasibility.
“We first find first principles. Can we do it? What is the underlying science that we need to solve and what are the technological challenges,” Hagedorn said.“We then ask how do we make it simpler, easier and able to be done on a marine station or on the beach.”
Henley, who co-authored the study, believes the research could be impactful in creating a time capsule as climate change continues to threaten us.
“Our goal is to cryopreserve as many species of coral as possible by 2030,” Henley said in a recent press release. “If this is successful, we may be able to do that. At a time when climate change is moving so fast, this gives us an amazing ability to stop time here in the 2020s.”
Climate change is causing a significant decline of corals: a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a 70 to 90% decline in coral reefs with 1.5°C increases.
The reasons for this are twofold. When the ocean water warms, corals expel the algae that they have a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship with through a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. This makes the corals more susceptible to stress and mortality. In addition, as carbon dioxide levels increase, the water becomes more acidic, making it difficult for corals to maintain their calcium carbonate shells.
This process affects all forms of sea life with these types of shells, according to Hagedorn.
Hagedorn said the goal of the research is to find a way to preserve entire coral fragments to develop a bank of coral species.
“We are building cryopreservation nodes around the world to store coral,” Hagedorn said. “We will be training cryopreservation teams and trying to build capacity in countries of interest. Our goal in the next 10 years is to bring all coral species into captivity.”
Rebecca Helm, who serves as an assistant professor in Georgetown University’s Earth Commons Institute, believes that this research is valuable, but should not be taken as an end-all-be-all.
“This is a really interesting step to possibly preserving corals,” Helm wrote to The Hoya. “I think this also shouldn’t be considered a reasonable response to climate change, this is more of an option of last resort.”
Despite these concerns, Helm said this research could be impactful for reef preservation.
“Still, this is an exciting step forward,” Helm wrote. “It’s an exciting technique and I’m looking to try it out in my own research.”
Hagedorn believes that the best way for college students and young people to make an impact is to vote and to maintain a government that enacts climate change policies.
“This threat is existential. It is cataclysmic for our lives,” Hagedorn said. “It is important that we inspire people to get out and vote. Having a political regime that understands and supports climate change is powerful.”