Coral reefs are one of the world's greatest biological treasures. They are some of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Although they cover less than one-tenth of one percent of the Earth’s surface, one-quarter of all marine life depends on them. They are the ocean’s nurseries and feeding grounds.
They also benefit our species. Millions of people and thousands of communities all over the world depend on coral reefs for food and to protect their coastal homes. They are a source of potential antibiotics, and medicines for cancer and HIV-AIDS.
But around the world, they are facing grave threats. Colonies that have been flourishing for thousands of years are dying because of environmental damage, destructive fishing practices such as dynamite fishing and bottom trawling, pollution from industrial waste and other sources, and global warming, which causes bleaching—when zooxanthellae (symbiotic algae that live in coral and provide the animal with the organic products of photosynthesis, as well as the coral's color) are expelled, the coral colony dies and turns white.
Scientists from many disciplines are working in many ways to save coral.
As part of an international collaborative program to rear a threatened species, National Zoo scientists harvested 12,000 microscopic elkhorn coral larvae in Puerto Rico in August 2007. They hope to one day return the animals, once they are grown, to their wild ocean habitat. more
Mary Hagedorn, a senior scientist at the National Zoo, directs the Coral Conservancy Program. Regarded as the world's leading expert in aquatic cryobiology (the study of living organisms at low temperatures), Hagedorn is pioneering new technologies to cryopreserve coral, so that they could remain frozen but alive in liquid nitrogen for hundreds of years.
This future-thinking program is the only one of its kind in the world. The frozen repository will serve as an insurance policy against future disasters to our coral reefs because it could potentially be used to reseed the oceans with coral. Although this program has extraordinary conservation potential, it is being slowed by a lack of resources. The Coral Conservancy Program combines basic research and physiology on coral and in-the-field conservation efforts. We are applying the same techniques as those used in human fertility clinics to help conserve the various components of the reef. more on cryopreservation