Genes Without Price – Great Barrier Reef DNA Frozen For The Future

The nation’s top marine scientists have quietly spent the past decade collecting – and cryofreezing - sperm and egg samples from the Great Barrier Reef during its annual spawning season.

The reason – to safeguard and preserve the reef’s priceless genetic diversity for future generations, as human-driven climate change continues to ravage the reef.

Precious samples of sperm and other cells are stored in world’s largest frozen repository of living coral, located at Taronga’s CryoDiversity Banks at both Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo and Taronga Zoo, Sydney.

Taronga reproductive biologist Dr Rebecca Hobbs says that thanks to the latest release of genetic material in November, the Taronga CryoDiversity Bank’s Great Barrier Reef collection now includes cells from 26 species of coral, making it the largest frozen repository of living coral in the world.

“Over the six spawning nights last November our team banked samples from 79 individual colonies of 15 different coral species, with five new species being added to the CryoDiversity Bank this year,” says Hobbs.

“As with plant seedbanks, our CryoDiversity Bank represents an invaluable living vault.

“We can thaw out cells decades, or even centuries, from now to produce living coral offspring. Providing that a healthy habitat exists, these offspring can bolster the genetic diversity of priority coral populations and help ensure their long-term survival.” says Hobbs.

Saving this genetic diversity is the linchpin that ensures reef systems can recover from the devastating impact of coral bleaching events, like the ones seen in 2016 and 2017.

The yearly spawning event brings scientists together at the National Sea Simulator, a world class marine research facility operated by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) near Townsville.

The National Sea Simulator provides a stable platform of water quality, temperature and light exposure to allow the coral to release their egg and sperm bundles in the same way and timing as they would in nature.

Taronga’s team of biologists have been working with the Smithsonian Institution, AIMS and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation since 2011, focusing on the cryopreservation of keystone coral reef, and demonstrating the ability of cryopreserved coral sperm to fertilise coral eggs.

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