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The Ocean’s First Fertility Clinic

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of snorkeling shallow blue waters or diving deep in the sea, you’ve come close to one of Earth’s oldest and most important ecosystems. Easily mistaken for rocks or plants, coral reefs are colonies of small animals that play a mighty role in our planet’s health.

Some long and spindly, others brain-like or tubular, over 800 species of coral cover only a percent of the ocean floor—providing home-sweet-homes to a dizzying array of underwater species. It’s estimated that 25% of all marine life lives on a coral reef at some point of its existence, a biodiversity rivaling that of tropical rainforests. And though they exist out of sight (and perhaps out of mind) for most land dwellers, coral supports the algae that produces 50% to 85% of Earth’s oxygen. Took a breath today? Thank coral reefs. To scientist Mary Hagedorn, they are “the most magnificent creatures on Earth”—ones she’s racing the clock and climate change to protect.

The challenge is big: research points to the possibility that 50% of our coral reefs have died in the last 30 years. But from her enviably scenic office at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Mary leads a tireless, global effort to save them. She’s developed cryopreservation technologies to preserve coral sperm and fertilized eggs, and her team has managed to conserve over 30 species worldwide, to date. “Cryopreservation,” Mary says, “is the biology of saving cells at cool temperatures so that they're no longer active. They're frozen but alive.”

With all 800-plus species of coral threatened by increasingly warming and acidifying waters, the technology allows scientists to continually create a “book of life,” and facilitates the reseeding of coral reefs. It’s a huge step in protecting the biodiversity of one of Earth’s most reproductively constrained animals. Hermaphrodites, coral produce both sperm and egg—but rarely. In the Great Barrier Reef, for example, there are 400 species of coral, each of them reproducing just two nights a year for a mere 40 minutes each time.

Collecting coral sperm and eggs is a complicated production, one that varies from species to species—and one that requires a global team to work as quickly as possible. “It's critical that we do this work now because we have a great deal of biodiversity left in our ocean,” Mary says. “Time is fleeting.”

This is the third story in our latest series, “The Brave,” all about the incredible people protecting our Great Big Planet.


Kāne'ohe Bay, Hawaii

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