Scientists playing key role in protecting reef

Scientists playing key role in protecting reef

#Science, #Taronga Conservation Society Australia

Posted on 11th February 2021 by Media Relations

Taronga’s scientists are making a significant contribution towards securing a future for the Great Barrier Reef by cryopreserving cells of reef-building coral species in the largest frozen repository of living coral in the world, aimed at helping the reef survive environmental pressures.

Taronga’s Dr Rebecca Hobbs and Dr Justine O’Brien worked on the collection and preservation of coral sperm samples during the spawning event that took place last December. These samples are stored at the Taronga CryoDiversity Bank at Taronga Western Plains Zoo Dubbo and Taronga Zoo Sydney.

“We banked three new coral species into the Taronga CryoDiversity Bank, with the Great Barrier Reef collection now having 29 different coral species represented,” said Senior Reproductive Biologist, Dr Rebecca Hobbs.

The team also banked coral samples from four different reefs in the northern region of the Greater Barrier Reef, adding to the genetic diversity of the species already represented in the Taronga CryoDiversity Bank.

“The bank now includes living samples from reefs across the northern, southern and central region of the Great Barrier Reef, this includes reproductive cells from high conservation value, heat-tolerant corals,” said Dr Hobbs.

Taronga’s Reef Recovery Project has been operating since 2011 and now serves as a model for similar approaches around the globe. Like any successful conservation program it requires ongoing commitment to understand the problem and create integrated solutions that are responsive to changes as they emerge.

“Over the past 10 years we have worked collaboratively to develop and apply new technologies to preserve cells. Our work demonstrates the ability of cryopreserved coral sperm to fertilise fresh coral eggs and produce juvenile corals,” said Dr Hobbs.

As environmental events and stressors lead to the loss of coral species and threaten the future of the Great Barrier Reef, initiatives such as the Taronga CryoDiversity Bank offer a means to secure the current genetic diversity of the reef. For coral species to have any chance of adapting to environmental stressors like climate change, reef genetic diversity is the linchpin.

“Cryopreservation and biobanking of living coral cells allow us to buy time and capture the current genetic diversity of the Great Barrier Reef before it’s lost. We will use these samples in the coming years, or even decades, to breed new corals, helping safeguard the reef’s future,” said Dr Hobbs.

In 2021, Taronga will embark on a new critical phase through the support of the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP), the world’s largest effort to develop effective interventions to help coral reefs resist, adapt to and recover from the impacts of climate change. RRAP partners include the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, CSIRO, The University of Queensland, QUT, Southern Cross University and James Cook University. The Program is funded by the Partnership between the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Australian Government's Reef Trust.

This important program is being highlighted on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February as an all-female team from Taronga has led the cryopreservation of the Great Barrier Reef for the past 10 years.

Dr Justine O’Brien said diversity is key to the success of Taronga’s scientific programs on many levels.

“At Taronga, 67% of the Welfare Conservation and Science team are female and leading the way with projects focused on wildlife health, biodiversity conservation, ecology, nutrition and conservation behaviour and welfare.”

“Our commitment to an organisational culture that supports and enables diversity across gender, cultural background and other workforce dimensions is integral in advancing our conservation science programs and ensuring Taronga remains a leader in conservation.”  

Taronga’s CryoDiversity Bank was established in 1995 and houses the world’s largest frozen coral repository in a living genebank that advances the understanding of coral biology and adaptation to oceanic climate change. It is the only wildlife bank in Australia with permanent research staff specialised in animal physiology, cryobiology and wildlife population management.