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Image credit: Paul Selvaggio, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Scientists raised endangered coral species in the lab

And they have now reached sexual maturity.

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Paul Selvaggio, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Elkhorn is a critical reef-building species in the Caribbean, and the fact that it's endangered proves that our coral reefs are in huge trouble. In an effort to help the planet's reefs recover, SECORE International grew Elkhorns in the lab four years ago, which have now reached sexual maturity. Instead of snapping off pieces of coral from the wild to induce asexual reproduction, the team waited until it's time for the species to release gametes. Since that only happens once or twice a year, they didn't waste their chance in August 2011, placing special nets over the marine invertebrates to capture germ cells.

SECORE's scientists mixed egg and sperm cells in the lab, watching them grow into swimming larvae and settle onto substrates. When the test tube coral babies reached that phase, the team transplanted the substrates onto the reef where they captured the samples. By opting for sexual reproduction, the team managed to create new genotypes that might be able to withstand pollution better than the current crop of Elkhorns. Opting for asexual reproduction would have merely created clones.

The group warns, however, that growing corals in the lab "can only support natural recovery, which means that conditions have to be appropriate to allow long term survival of outplanted corals and succession by other organisms to restore ecosystem functions." In the end, if we continue to overfish and pollute the oceans, coral reefs could still die out and take 25 percent of all marine species with them to the grave.

[Image credit: Paul Selvaggio, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium]

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