Cryopreservation: cold comfort for coral


A Monash researcher is part of a collaborative international project to preserve coral reefs from extinction by cryogenically freezing genetic materials with the aim of repopulating extinct species in the future.

Coral reef systems, such as the Great Barrier Reef, are under serious threat from global warming as most coral species have very limited tolerance to elevated ocean temperatures. Coral bleaching is commonly observed and, if exposed to high temperatures for more than a week or two, the coral will die.

The Coral Reef Recovery Initiative is a worldwide program aiming to identify at-risk coral species and create a bank of cryopreserved genetic material. 

Project collaborator Professor Douglas MacFarlane from the Monash University School of Chemistry has made significant contributions to the field of Cryopreservation during his 25 years of research. He is the co-inventor of “Vitrification”, one of the fundamental techniques, used in the field.

“Australian reefs are especially sensitive to rises in surface sea temperatures during El Nino summers and many marine scientists are extremely concerned about the potentially deadly impact of such extreme events in the coming decade,” Professor MacFarlane said.

“The Recovery program will harvest at-risk species, and then hundreds of small samples of tissue will be rapidly cooled into liquid nitrogen for storage. Years later the samples can be recovered and grown - first ‘in vitro’ and later in protected coral nurseries - for eventual re-population into the reef.”

“The Monash team’s expertise is in mixing the cocktail of chemicals used to protect the coral tissue from the damaging effects of ice crystal formation during cooling.”

The Coral Reef Recovery Initiative is led by Dr Mary Hagedorn of the Smithsonian Institute Washington DC and the University of Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. Professor Hagedorn and her research group are currently developing the techniques to repopulate the preserved coral.

The Taronga Zoo and the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences are also partners.