Scientists Are Using IVF To Save Coral Reefs Battered by climate change and pollution, coral reefs are dying off. But in Guam, one group of scientists is trying to revive these tiny animals — with the coral equivalent of IVF.

As Corals Wither Around The World, Scientists Try IVF

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Corals around the world are not doing well. Warming seawater and increasing ocean acidity or damaging reef ecosystems. Some fear a worldwide collapse by the year 2050. Now a team of international scientists has developed an approach that might give some corals a fighting chance. Reporter Ari Daniel brings us this story from Guam in the tropical Pacific.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: It's a couple hours after sunset, and everyone's donning a wet suit. Zippers yank closed against bare backs. In minutes, I'm standing among 15 to 20 dark figures in a graveyard on the west coast of Guam.

DIRK PETERSEN: Somebody has a light.

DANIEL: They're not here for the tombstones. No, they've come to help rescue something else from dying in the waters nearby - the corals.

PETERSEN: OK, let's go.

DANIEL: Dirk Petersen is easily the largest person in the group.

PETERSEN: It's going to be the night, guys - spawning time.

DANIEL: Spawning is what happens when corals have sex. That's right - sex. The reefs we see are actually colonies of millions of tiny animals, and in a single night, they cast a fog of sperm and eggs into the water, some of which fertilize to make baby coral larvae. And some of those larvae settle back onto the reef making it grow.

Peterson is the founder and executive director of an organization called SECORE, which stands for sexual coral reproduction. His mission is to gather sperm and eggs from the corals, fertilize them in the lab and return the baby corals to the wild. Think of it like IVF for the reefs.


DANIEL: The team divvies up the collection containers and heads to the beach.

Everyone's getting their snorkel ready, sharing lights so they can see what they're doing and wading out into the water.

I follow along underneath the stars with Richard Ross, a biologist with the California Academy of Sciences.

Sprinkled out all around are little patches of coral colonies.

RICHARD ROSS: Under the water, it's just a constant safari. You hope you're going to see the corals spawning, and you never know if it's even going to happen.

DANIEL: Tonight, Ross and the others are focusing on staghorn corals, a species that forms thickets of branching antlers. The staghorns have been hit hard in Guam by four years of bleaching and one episode of extreme low tides, not to mention soil runoff and heavy fishing. Laurie Raymundo is a biologist at the University of Guam.

LAURIE RAYMUNDO: A bunch of us coral reef managers were just so sick of just watching things die and really felt we want to start doing something - restore, rehabilitate. Those are technical terms. The emotional terms are let's just see if we can watch something live for once (laughter).

DANIEL: Which in large part is why SECORE is here. The group got its start in the Caribbean. They've come to the Pacific to teach others their technique to restore reefs. The method depends entirely on spawn. Al Licuanan is from De La Salle University in the Philippines. He's eagerly eyeing the water for any sign of the spawn.

AL LICUANAN: It's described like an upside down rain of yellow, blue, pink. You'll find this foam-like muck.

DANIEL: That's the future of the reef.

LICUANAN: Yes. And that's what we're waiting for.

DANIEL: At last, it happens. I wade back over to Richard Ross.

ROSS: We've got a whole slit going on.

DANIEL: Those little white dots that are kind of swirling around...

ROSS: Exactly.

DANIEL: Looks like kind of the Milky Way.

ROSS: Yeah. You came on a good night.

DANIEL: Only problem is it's the wrong species. The spawn's from the big Porites boulder corals, and the team doesn't have the right equipment to collect it. Dirk Petersen admits defeat.

PETERSEN: Patience - tomorrow's another night (laughter).

DANIEL: The next night, they bring the right equipment, but there's not enough spawn. The following night, they try a different location but, again, not enough. The spawning window has closed. It's part of what makes the work so difficult.


DANIEL: Before leaving Guam, I paddle a kayak 12,000 feet from shore underneath a fiery sunset sky. Nicole Burns, a grad student at the University of Guam, kicks her way down to a coral nursery below me. And when she surfaces, bobbing beside me, she's holding a small, cement pyramid in her hand with a staghorn the size of a crouton growing on its surface.

It's a baby, baby coral.

NICOLE BURNS: Yes, yeah - kind of looks like a little baby, too. It's light in color, and it's, you know, got a little pink on it.

DANIEL: This baby's 2 years old and came from spawn collected at sea and fertilized on shore. It's been growing in the nursery ever since, cared for by Burns, among others.

BURNS: We tend to them. And then once they're big enough, then you plant them out to be in nature and in the wild.

DANIEL: The next day, this baby will be placed on a reef farther up the coast where everyone's hoping it will grow up to stand guard against an uncertain future. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel.


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